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Committee approves anti-COVID vaccine mandate bills

By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Two bills opposing the COVID-19 vaccine mandates for federal workers and large companies got Senate committee approval on Monday and now move to the full Senate. They could get votes there Tuesday.

While Republican supporters say they know the federal mandate issue will have to be settled in court, they said the Legislature needs to act, too. So far, 12 anti-vaccine mandate bills have been filed in this special session, including five filed in the House despite Speaker Mac McCutcheon’s statement last week that this special session on redistricting isn’t the place to handle the issue.

Because vaccine-related legislation was not included in Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for the special session on redistricting, it would take a two-thirds vote to pass the bills in each chamber. That might not be out of reach considering the gathering support.

Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Daphne, has 19 co-sponsors on his Senate Bill 9 that would allow for vaccine requirement exemptions based on religious beliefs and medical reasons, including recovery from COVID-19.

Elliott previously told Alabama Daily News that he hopes employers “can hit the pause button” on vaccine requirements until President Joe Biden’s mandate can be litigated.

The Senate General Fund budget committee’s two Democrats in attendance Monday voted against the bill. Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said it would make workers who don’t want to be vaccinated “tell the big lie” about their religious beliefs.

“I’ll be voting no against this bill and fighting it on the Senate floor,” Singleton said. Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, also voted no.

Sen. Arthur Orr’s Senate Bill 15, which has 15 co-sponsors, prohibits an entity, institution of education or business from discriminating against a person who refuses to provide proof of immunization.

Orr’s bill goes a step further to provide a private right of action by an individual injured by a violation of this bill. It says “an individual injured by a violation of this section may bring a civil action and recover damages, together with costs and disbursements, including reasonable attorney fees, and receive other equitable relief as determined by the court.”

Sen. Tom Butler added an amendment to Orr’s bill that would prohibit schools from providing a COVID-19 vaccine to students 18 and under without parental consent.

The two Democrats were the only votes against Orr’s bill as well.

Alabama joined with a coalition of other states in a lawsuit filed late Friday challenging the vaccine mandate on federal contractors. The lawsuit is part of Republican-led efforts to oppose the federal requirements.

Alabama has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country with just 44.7% of the population fully vaccinated, compared to a national average of 58%. In announcing the rules in September, President Joe Biden said the unvaccinated were hindering the nation’s recovery.

Some Alabama companies began letting employees go last week over the mandates, including 200 workers at Austal in Mobile on Friday.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, said anything the Legislature does will lead to a court battle, “but we have to try to do something.”

About two dozen people attending Monday’s committee hearing came with anti-vaccine mandate materials. Albritton multiple times had to ask the crowd to stop shouting and “respect the decorum” of the committee.

Lawmakers are on a tight timeline with the special session expected to end late this week.

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