A long-awaited bill to protect Hoosiers from mandated vaccines died right before Thanksgiving, then was quietly resurrected last week by Indiana House members who don’t want their constituents subjected to forced medical treatments.
When Gov. Eric Holcomb finally agreed in November to end a public state of emergency he had renewed 20 times already, he went to Indiana legislators with requests he said needed to be addressed first. What came out was a bill that not only included what he wanted— extended federal subsidies and easier vaccine access for kids—but also a bill that would protect Hoosiers from employer and school Covid vaccine mandates.
A one-day session was scheduled to pass the legislation, which included medical exemptions; straightforward religious exemptions that employers could not question or revisit; and a six-month exemption for naturally-acquired immunity. It also included the option for employees to test rather than vaccinate, with the employer footing the bill.
A joint House and Senate committee heard preliminary testimony on the bill for seven hours the week prior to the special session. The next day, however, to the shock of supporters, the deal was killed. Some said legislators couldn’t reach the two-thirds vote needed in each chamber to suspend the rules and rush the bill through; some said it was the fault of the Senate. Still others put the blame on the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, one of the bill’s vocal critics and a major player in state politics.
With the bill dead, the governor announced he would move on to a 21st public emergency. House Speaker Todd Huston said medical rights protections would be a priority in January, when the General Assembly planned to reconvene. This, however, wasn’t good enough for some House members, several of which already thought the delay had gone on too long. Instead, they went to the Capitol and filed a bill anyway.
State Rep. Alan Morrison, one of the lawmakers leading the charge, said he had been motivated to get the protections in place since March and couldn’t wait any longer. “It makes me physically ill to think that people are going to lose their jobs over something the legislature could have done. We need to get this done,” he said.
State Rep. Randy Frye, along with Morrison, was essential in getting House members to rally, and together they were able to get 28 members to Indianapolis to file the bill. Frye said he didn’t want constituents to think they were not willing to show up to work: “This is real-life stuff, and we needed to be there to show we were ready to move this legislation.”
The move for House members to file the bill was so unexpected, the media at first didn’t even seem to know it happened. The bill was filed as 1001, a number associated with the top legislative priority for the upcoming session. In the end, 56 of 100 representatives signed onto the bill, including the House speaker. A simple majority is all it takes to pass legislation following standard procedures.
Lawmakers Delay Protections Long Past Time of Need
Delays have kept such legislation from being a reality in the state for months. Indiana could have been at the forefront of vaccine protections, but a bill authored in early 2021 that included medical, religious, and conscience exemptions got locked up in committee.
Despite heavy lobbying from constituents, the Indiana Senate’s Pensions and Labor Committee chairman, Phil Boots, prevented the bill from getting a vote, claiming it didn’t have consensus. The Chamber also pushed against the bill because it would allow workers to sue if their employers didn’t honor the exemptions. The bill’s demise was a blow to medical liberty advocates.
As lawmakers failed to protect Hoosiers’ rights to medical choice, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. went forward with one of the first Covid vaccine requirements in the country, and Indiana University put forward a vaccine mandate that received pushback from both Attorney General Todd Rokita and state legislators. A federal judge later said IU could go forward with its mandate, and the Supreme Court refused to stop it.
Hoosiers continued to push for some relief from vaccine mandates months later, when the Indiana General Assembly met for redistricting. Frustration with employer mandates had increased, with more and more workers being forced vaccinate or risk job loss. In September, for instance, Indiana University Health — the state’s biggest hospital system — said 125 workers were no longer employed for refusing to comply with the mandate.
Not All Lawmakers Put Special Interests Above Voters
Still, Republican leadership said they would not consider vaccine protections during redistricting, leaving constituents vulnerable to pressure to take medicines they don’t want. So, when a compromise between the governor and the Republican-led legislature led to a bill that included protection from the mandates, Hoosiers finally felt they had real hope. As state Rep. Matt Lehman, the bill’s author, said: “I’ve had people that are saying ‘I’m on the chopping block. This can’t wait until January. I think we need to take this action now.’”
Jake Teshka, another state representative who didn’t want to abandon the bill, said his constituents told him the issue was a priority. “I am committed to seeing this through,” he said. “I have constituents who have come to me in tears facing early December deadlines to take a vaccine they aren’t comfortable with or lose their jobs. Many of them will choose to simply walk away – right before Christmas no less. That weighs on me daily and I know that no hollow words from me are going to make that better. But I am committed.”
The bill is far from perfect. While it prevents state colleges from mandating vaccines, students at private universities are granted no such protection. Additionally, the bill’s exemption for those with natural immunity requires a positive test (which many who have recovered from Covid may have never had) and is limited to six months, despite studies showing natural immunity can last much longer and is much better than vaccine-derived immunity.
Also, although the bill attempts to make exemptions harder for employers to refuse, medical exemptions can be almost impossible to obtain by fearful doctors. Finally, the bill doesn’t have teeth for enforcing its provisions, but a few Indiana legislators have said they’re still hoping to add financial penalties for companies that violate the proposed law.
Some medical liberty advocates would prefer a much stronger law, like the one in Montana, that makes vaccine status a protected class like sex, race, and religion. Otherwise, people who do not choose to vaccinate can still be treated unequally, being forced to wear masks or test even when they are not sick. Additionally, laws that focus more on exemptions are problematic, because exemptions can be narrowed and eventually taken away, which has happened in other states.
Morrison said they could pass Bill 1001 out of the House in the next two weeks. That would help protect workers from the Biden administration’s January 4 vaccine mandate deadline, a date many employers are still using even though courts have repeatedly blocked the mandate. Once a bill is passed through the House, it will be up to the Senate. They will either act or face the constituent consequences.
The House representatives who stood up for Hoosiers and said they wouldn’t wait any longer on a vaccine protection bill deserve to be commended. While the legislation needs strengthening, there is no denying this bill would be a welcome relief.
Last year, Indiana legislators’ hallmark legislation was a Covid shield law to protect businesses from being sued for claims related to the virus. This year, it’s time for policymakers to shift their attention from protecting business to protecting Indiana’s workforce. Let’s hope the state Senate and the governor also step up and finally make this law a reality.