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Under legislation proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, employers who require COVID-19 vaccines for their workers would be required to allow for religious and medical exemptions to that mandate.

Justice asked the West Virginia Legislature to take up the measure during its special session this week.

“I absolutely, firmly believe that this country was founded upon our rights and freedoms,” Justice said during his COVID-19 briefing Wednesday. “That’s really, really the ingredient that makes America great. It surely is what makes West Virginia great.”

Justice’s proposed legislation seemed to contradict comments he made about vaccine mandates during Monday’s COVID-19 briefing.

“Our private businesses are our private businesses,” Justice said Monday. ”We should not be telling a private business what they should or should not do.”

While West Virginia currently has no known laws relating to employer vaccine mandates, state law does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions for immunizations required to attend schools. The state’s school students are required to be vaccinated against whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and hepatitis B.

Health officials in the past have touted the state’s strong immunization laws and its high rate of childhood immunizations.

Justice clarified that his proposed legislation would not apply to other vaccines besides COVID-19.

“These other vaccines for mumps, measles and rubella have been around a long time; it’s weathered the test of time,” Justice said. “Even though I whole-heartedly support the [COVID-19] vaccine, I will continue to absolutely encourage, in every way, for people to take these vaccines, because I truly believe in my heart they are very, very, very safe.”

The House Government Organization Committee passed the governor’s bill, which was opposed by two of the state’s largest hospital systems, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine, along with the state hospital association, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the state Medical Association.

The House of Delegates rejected a call to refer the bill to its Health Committee and read the bill for a first time.

The Senate also took up a version of the bill for a first reading Wednesday.

Lori Kersey covers the city and county. She can be reached at 304-348-1240 or Follow

@LoriKerseyWV on Twitter.

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