Indiana Senate Republican leadership dismembered a delayed bill to protect workers from forced Covid-19 vaccinations — and even pulled out its heart, a religious exemption employees testified they needed to keep their jobs.
The Republican-led Senate has been no friend to protections against medical coercion, having failed to put vaccine safeguards in place for more than a year as Hoosiers lost jobs. The House, frustrated with the Senate’s delay in moving forward with meaningful protections, forged ahead with legislation anyway. They made H.B. 1001 their priority for 2022.
The House bill allowed for medical, religious, and natural immunity exemptions from the vaccine, as well as an option to regularly test rather than provide an exemption. Certain worker-friendly measures were added, too, like limiting the testing of employees to once per week and not making them pay for tests.
When the House bill crossed over to the Senate, Majority Leader Mark Messmer, a Republican, was named the bill’s sponsor. With someone so high in Senate leadership on the bill, it was thought he had the power to either make or break the bill. He chose the latter.
With Republicans Like These, Who Needs Democrats?
The Senate version of the legislation, unveiled in committee, rid the bill of any meaningful worker protections. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce said employers should be allowed to force employees into medical decisions, and the Senate appeared to rewrite the legislation to suit them.
The Senate changed the House’s bill so significantly that those who showed up to oppose the legislation — the chamber and the Indiana Manufacturers Association — actually switched sides mid-hearing. Medical liberty advocates, on the other hand, also reversed position, saying they would no longer support H.B. 1001. As one advocate put it, the chamber seems “to believe that employers have more rights to their employees’ bodies than the employees have themselves.”
The most devastating change to the bill affected the religious exemption. The House’s version included a strong religious exemption, which said employees could receive a religious exemption without further inquiry. The Senate deleted that and said religious exemptions would be limited to federal protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
This was an absolute tone-deaf move by the Senate. The General Assembly heard more than 17 hours of testimony on H.B. 1001, during which workers with religious exemptions told legislators they had lost their jobs despite those alleged federal protections.
Senate Cowardice Hurts Hoosiers
Robin Clark, who testified before the General Assembly three times, told me she was fired from her job as a process engineer for Eli Lilly and Co. for “misconduct — insubordination” despite a doctor-validated medical exemption, a request for a religious exemption, and proof of natural immunity. She said she missed the religious exemption deadline, only because she did not expect her medical exemption to be denied.
“I stated to them that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects my religious freedom every day of the year, not just until some arbitrarily set company deadline. The company still just stated that it was past their deadline,” Clark said. “I went from being a high-performing engineer one day to being unemployed the next.” Eli Lilly refused to comment.
While the Senate weakened the bill in many ways — from doubling the number of tests companies could require per week to reducing the natural immunity window from six months to three — slashing the state religious exemption was without a doubt the most grievous.
Why Did Senate Leadership Chicken Out?
Republican Sen. Blake Doriot, at the urging of myself and others, agreed to author and champion an amendment to reinsert the House’s original strong religious exemption language back into the bill. Just hours before the bill was scheduled to be heard, we confirmed we had enough Republicans to get it through. But the bill came and went without the amendment being called. Doriot said he was unable to bring the measure to the floor based on Senate rules — rules he said “failed a great portion of the Hoosier population.”
With a willing amendment author and a majority of Republicans on board, it was clear that the only people who still had the power to block the amendment were Senate leadership. Leadership is comprised of Senate President Pro Tempore Rod Bray, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Travis Holdman, and Messmer, both majority leader and the bill’s sponsor.
Perhaps what was most offensive and shameful about the situation was how top Republicans protected the interests of the Chamber of Commerce over the religious and medical freedom of their constituents. Religious liberty, so often embraced by the political right, was completely cast aside. As a result of what happened with his amendment, Doriot removed his name as a Senate sponsor on H.B. 1001.
While pressure on the legislature to move vaccine protections forward has lessened since the Supreme Court stopped President Joe Biden’s employee vaccine mandate from going forward, Indiana’s passage of a meaningful bill — and a fortified religious exemption — is still essential, because some Indiana companies continue to force vaccines on their workers.
The bill will now go to conference committee, where the House and Senate versions of the bill will be reconciled. There, House bill author Rep. Matt Lehman will hopefully have the opportunity to rebuild the religious exemption to its former strength.
How the Bill Could Still Pull Through
What could help force the Senate to compromise are provisions that Gov. Eric Holcomb has claimed he wants in place before he will end Indiana’s public health emergency. Originally, the emergency language Holcomb wants was tied into H.B. 1001, which gave the House leverage. The House knew that the governor would be unlikely to sign vaccine protections into law unless the emergency language was linked to it.
The governor has generally sided with the Chamber of Commerce in the vaccine debate. “I have long said very openly that I believe that the employers, the businesses, are in the best position to determine how to keep their employees safe,” Holcomb told the IndyStar in December. He now claims he may be open to some protections, but so far has done nothing to secure strong ones.
While the Senate originally removed the governor’s emergency language from H.B. 1001, preferring to keep it in a separate bill, the House wouldn’t move the standalone emergency language. It was a game of chicken between the two houses, and Messmer was concerned enough to add the language back into H.B. 1001. The governor, who has already renewed Indiana’s state of emergency 23 times, which is legally dubious, will now be under pressure to sign the bill. The governor’s current order ends March 4.
The Senate’s move to block a religious freedom amendment in favor of corporate interests exposes the lack of core principles from leaders at the top. The fact that this comes on the heels of the Senate gutting and then killing a House bill to protect kids from critical race theory to appease the teachers’ unions whose members don’t vote for Republicans only makes problems at the leadership level that much more obvious. With any luck, the House will get this fortified religious exemption in place anyway — and the Senate will only have reinforced its disconnect with Indiana voters.