By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Six bills pushing back on federal vaccine mandates were introduced in the Alabama Senate on Thursday, but their futures in the special session seem shaky.
Speaker of the House Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, told reporters that while House members agree with their Senate colleagues, he doesn’t plan to let vaccine bills on the floor. He said he thinks the matter should be handled in the courts.
“The legislative body leadership is fully supportive of the governor’s executive order as well as working with the attorney general to try to find a solution, but the last thing we want to do is have a knee-jerk reaction to something that may sound good politically but in substance, what does it do?” McCutcheon said.
In a special session, bills outside the governor’s official call must get two-thirds approval in both chambers to pass. Officials expect this session to end late next week, meaning bills have to move quickly. Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, introduced on the floor Thursday two bills related to vaccine mandates and said they and others could be in committee on Monday.
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, Sen. Tom Butler, R-Huntsville, and Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, also filed bills trying to loosen vaccine requirements.
Orr told Alabama Daily News he thought McCutcheon’s stance is unfortunate.
“This is an issue that I strongly believe we need to discuss, debate and attempt to resolve immediately,” Orr said.
President Joe Biden earlier this year said that federal workers and businesses with more than 100 employees had to require COVID-19 vaccines or regular testing.
“They’re losing their jobs at ULA (today),” Orr said about workers at United Launch Alliance in Decatur. “We have to do all we can to help these individuals and their families that are in peril.”
Concerns in north Alabama over federal vaccine requirements are high in north Alabama because of the large number of federal employees and federal contract employees, Orr said on the Senate floor Thursday.
“When (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) promulgates its (regulations) that are coming out, that tidal wave is going to move south,” he said.
Auburn University and the University of Alabama system earlier this month said they would comply with the mandate by Dec. 8 because failure to do so would risk federal funding, the Associated Press reported.
As lawmakers arrived Thursday in Montgomery for a special session focused on redistricting, a group of anti-vaccine mandate protesters gathered outside the State House.
Alabama has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccine rates in the country at about 44.5%, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Orr’s Senate Bill 12 and Senate Bill 13 prohibit employers, places of public accommodation and occupational licensing boards from discriminating against an individual based on immunization status and authorize the state attorney general to defend those subject to federal fines. Both bills have 13 co-sponsors.
Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, has 19 co-sponsors — more than half the Senate — on his Senate Bill 9 that would allow for exemptions based on religious beliefs and medical reasons, including recovery from COVID-19.
“The protections provided by this section are to be liberally construed in favor of the employee,” the bill says. It also requires guidance for employers by the Alabama Department of Labor.
Elliott told Alabama Daily News that he hopes employers “can hit the pause button” on vaccine requirements until Biden’s mandate can be litigated. In Florida, GOP leaders filed a lawsuit Thursday over the mandate on federal contractors.
“Ultimately, this is going to have to be litigated, but in the meantime, people are being forced to take this vaccine or lose their jobs,” Elliott said. “Our hope is to stand in that gap and keep people and businesses from having to make that choice.”
“People are being hurt right now,” Elliott said.
Elliott said he hasn’t decided whether he’d try to delay redistricting legislation — the primary focus of the special session — if vaccine mandate bills don’t get consideration.
“I don’t think there’s a need to start threatening to hold up (redistricting legislation) but that is certainly an option,” Elliott said.