Watered-down vaccine mandate limits clear Senate, return to House for consideration

The Indiana Senate passed a watered-down version of the House Republicans’ bill to limit employer vaccine mandates, sending it back to the House where its future is cloudy.

House Bill 1001 cleared the GOP-dominated Senate on a 31-18 vote, with a handful of Republicans joining most Democrats in voting against the measure.

A notable change the Senate made to the bill was removing language that would have forced employers to accept any religious exemption without question.

The Senate’s version would allow employers to continue to accept religious exemptions to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, based on Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, with latitude for employers to take actions to keep the workplace safe.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, said employers would have the ability to further question and reject a religious exemption request under this provision.

Sen. Chip Perfect, R-Lawrenceburg, was one of the few Republicans who voted against the bill. He called the bill “legislative arrogance” because  lawmakers are trying to dictate the relationship between employees and the employer.

“We were dramatically opposed to our federal government imposing mandates upon our employees and employers, and our response to that was to impose a mandate a on our employers … I don’t find the rationality in it,” Perfect said.

The bill also would require that medical exemptions to employer vaccine mandates be accepted, but only with a signed note from a doctor, physician’s assistant or advanced practice registered nurse who says that the vaccine is medically contraindicated for the employee. And exemptions could be granted for “natural immunity” for employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies within the previous three months.

The bill also contains administrative language that Gov. Eric Holcomb has said he would need to end the statewide public health emergency.

Because the Senate made changes to HB 1001, it now returns to the House for consideration.

Bill author Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, told IBJ that he hasn’t decided what to do with the bill following all the changes the Senate made. He could recommend that the House concur with the changes, sending the bill the to the governor. Or the chamber could dissent, which would send the bill to conference committee where lawmakers from both chambers would attempt to work out a compromise.

“I may have to look deeper into what they’ve done,” Lehman said.

The clock is ticking if lawmakers want to get the bill to Holcomb’s desk for consideration before the current public health emergency is set to expire on Friday.

House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, told reporters last week to “count on” the bill getting to Holcomb by then so the governor would have the tools he has said he needs not extend the health emergency for another month.

Lehman said he also would like to get the bill to the governor by then.

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