As deployment of the various COVID-19 vaccines accelerates, some Tennessee lawmakers are working to prevent residents from being required to get the shot — to varying degrees of success and despite state officials’ declaration that no such mandate was forthcoming.
The bill with the most momentum — House Bill 13/Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Republican Sen. Janice Bowling and Republican Rep. Bud Hulsey — seeks to “prohibit state and local authorities from forcing, requiring or coercing a person to receive an immunization or vaccination for COVID-19 against the person’s will.” The Senate Education Committee approved the measure on Wednesday, cheered on by a crowd of anti-vaccination protestors. It is still making its way through the House committee system.
“If public health is unlimited, then the state is unlimited,” Bowling said. “This is the basis of a totalitarian state.”
After negotiations with the Tennessee Hospital Association and the University of Tennessee, Bowling agreed to include as exceptions government-owned hospitals and teaching hospitals.
Addressing the Senate Education Committee, Tennessee Department of Health Chief Medical Officer Tim Jones sought to push back on some of Bowling’s claims about COVID-19 vaccines. He said the COVID-19 death rate has “remarkably decreased” since the vaccines were introduced in Tennessee late last year and added that anything that discourages the use of the shots would have “huge negative impacts across the system.”
Other efforts have been less successful.
House Bill 10/Senate Bill 7 failed in a House subcommittee in early March. It would have removed a provision in state law that prevents people from claiming religious exemptions to vaccine mandates during pandemics.
“It’s the public welfare we’re here to vote for,” Republican Rep. Sabi Kumar, a retired doctor, said in opposing the bill. “It is the public welfare that we are here to protect and not to sacrifice in my own quest for liberty.”
Another Republican proposal pitted different conservative principles against each other. House Bill 1147/Senate Bill 1308 would have prohibited private employers from mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for their workforce. Republican sponsors pulled the proposal after realizing that it contradicted their long-held support for laws that give employers wide-ranging powers to hire and fire employees.
“In pursuit of individual liberty and freedom, you sometimes run into conflict with corporate freedom,” Republican Rep. Kevin Vaughan said. “The pursuit of the balance of that is something that’s very tricky.”