Indiana Senate panel waters down vaccine bill, prompting businesses to support it

Lawmakers in the Indiana Senate on Wednesday morning struck language from the House GOP’s vaccine mandates bill that would have forced employers to accept any religious exemptions without further question.

The Senate Health and Provider Services Committee removed and modified several provisions to water down the controversial House Bill 1001, which would restrict employers’ ability to impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The bill passed out of committee by a vote of 8-2 to head to the full Senate.

A notable change would allow employers to accept religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine based on the federal Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination based on religion, with latitude for employers to take actions to keep the workplace safe.

The bill, as it passed out of the House, would have forced employers to accept any religious exemption — no questions asked.

Medical exemptions would still have to be accepted, only with a signed note from a doctor, physician’s assistant or advanced practice registered nurse who says 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 within the last three months.

HB 1001 was additionally amended to clarify that it would not apply to health care workers who must comply with the federal vaccine mandate for health care employers that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding. Sports organizations and entertainment venues would also be exempt from the bill to allow vaccine mandates for employees who work closely with the team or entertainer at the venue.

Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper, the bill’s Senate sponsor, said he thought the bill was in a “pretty good spot” following the amendment that he worked on in conjunction with bill author Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne.

But its path forward could still be unclear. Lehman said he had concerns about the bill in its new state and will consider the Senate’s changes when it comes back to the House.

The Senate committee hearing marked the third time for public comment on the bill. But all who had testified previously flipped their positions on it because of the significant changes made to the legislation.

Business leaders who were originally opposed to HB 1001 because they said it discouraged employers from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine now testified in favor of the Senate’s version.

Malika Butler, director of public affairs at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said the organization is no longer opposed to the bill with the changes made to not restrict employers. The Indy Chamber and the Indiana Manufacturers Association also flipped and testified in favor.

“Indiana employers are in the best position of knowing what’s best for the safety of those in their workplace,” Butler said.

On the other side, several individuals who intended to testify in favor of the bill changed to oppose it because they said keeping employers’ ability to accept religious exemptions in accordance with Title VII was not enough.

Peter Vickery, a violinist with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, said he has been suspended since November because he refused to get vaccinated. He had been following the testing and masking requirements, but his religious exemption request was denied, he said.

He asked lawmakers to vote against the amended HB 1001 because it does not do enough to protect employees.

“The citizens of Indiana need more,” Vickery said. “We need protections against the kind of harsh discrimination I’ve experienced. The federal protections are not enough.”

Other changes included removing all references to unemployment benefits because the Department of Workforce Development said fired unvaccinated employees would still be eligible for benefits without the language, Messmer said. A provision that would have required employers to pay for the cost of weekly COVID-19 testing and apply to receive a reimbursement from the state was removed, as well.

Administrative language that would allow Gov. Eric Holcomb to end the public health emergency was also removed because the same language is in Senate Bill 3 that is moving through the House.

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