The special session of the West Virginia Legislature to redraw the legislative and congressional boundaries was moving along relatively smoothly, at least as lawmaking goes. But then a curveball — albeit unintended — came flying through the halls of the Capitol.
That curve ball is a bill submitted by Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday night stating that employers requiring employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19 must provide religious and medical exemptions.
Justice agreed to the bill as a compromise with the most conservative leaders of the Legislature who were more interested in passing legislation banning vaccine mandates, as several Republican-led states have done.
Justice said at his news briefing Wednesday that the bill is simply a restatement of existing federal law. “Any government or private businesses that wish to mandate the COVID vaccine must also allow for exemptions. That is the law of the land.”
Politically, the bill gives conservative lawmakers the ability to tell their constituents that they were able to provide some carve-outs for people who object to being forced to get vaccinated as a condition of employment.
However, the medical and business communities are in a panic over the bill. They believe the proposed legislation allows for almost any objection, putting employers in the position of accepting any exemption or face a lawsuit.
Hospitals, which already have adopted policies requiring the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment, believe that, if the bill becomes law, it will undermine their ongoing efforts to vaccinate their employees and ensure safety in the workplace.
Bill opponents have another fear; a bill can be changed during the legislative process in ways that drastically alter its intent. One source heard speculation that anti-vax lawmakers might try to amend the bill to provide broad exclusions for all vaccinations.
Clearly, that is not Justice’s desire, and the governor has said over and over that he does not want to interfere with business decisions. However, the state Chamber of Commerce has been poring over the bill, word by word, and believes the legislation goes well beyond the stated intent.
One business leader told me the bill creates a “nightmare scenario” of conflicting state and federal guidelines that will lead to confusion and lawsuits.
The courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have firmly established that businesses may require vaccinations as a condition of employment. To pretend otherwise, as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is attempting to do, is simply misguided.
Fortunately, Justice has chosen not to follow the lead of Abbott or several other Republican governors who are racing to enact politically popular, but legally flawed, policies.
Justice proposed the bill as a simple codification of what is already well-established law. However, in doing so he may have unintentionally opened the door to a political maelstrom.