FILE: COVID-19 Vaccine Dose
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(The Center Square) – Republican legislators in the Indiana House introduced a bill Monday that would allow employees to opt out of an employer's COVID-19 vaccine mandate "without further inquiry" if they submit a request for a medical or religious exemption, or ask for an exemption based on natural immunity after having recovered from COVID-19 within the last six months.

It is similar to draft legislation introduced late last month, but removes an exemption for women who are pregnant or who anticipate becoming pregnant.

It passed and signed into law, it may prevent the firing of more than 100 nurses and other health care workers from Ascension St. Vincent's Hospital whose requests for religious exemptions were denied.

Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, the Republican floor leader, author of House Bill 1001, and 55 other members of the Indiana House signed on as co-authors.

Requests for an exemption based on medical reasons and natural immunity require a letter from a doctor or advanced practice nurse, according to the bill, while the request for religious exemption requires only an employee write a letter to his or her employer stating they are declining the vaccine because of a "sincerely held religious belief."

The bill allows employers to require all employees who have gotten an exemption get a COVID-19 test, no more than once per week, and testing be at no cost to the employee.

The issue of the option for testing in lieu of getting the vaccine was addressed at length by many of those testifying before the joint meeting of the House and Senate Rules Committee last week, with several people representing employers in the state like Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, saying employers were worried about the expense of weekly testing.

Legislators clarified at the hearing it would be an employer's choice to have employees tested, and that no testing was required.

Some employees who testified spoke of COVID-19 testing using nasal swabs that is being done so harshly that it causes frequent nosebleeds and seems intended to punish or abuse those employees who have gotten exemptions.

Several Indiana hospitals, and several other private employers as well, began mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for employees beginning in the early summer.

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H.B. 1001 is the first bill introduced in the new session of the Indiana General Assembly.

Like the draft bill that preceded it, it includes the three provisions that Gov. Eric Holcomb requested and said were needed in order for him to allow the statewide public health emergency to expire – allowing waivers for the state to be able to continue to receive the additional federal funds it has been getting during the pandemic for Medicaid and SNAP and allowing a waiver so children age 5 and up can continue to be vaccinated outside of doctor's offices, at pharmacies and vaccination clinics.

In a statement sent to the media on Monday, Lehman said the bill will strengthen the rights of workers.

"This proposal covers the three items the executive branch asked for as a condition for lifting the state of emergency, while also strengthening the rights of individual workers throughout Indiana," he said. "I'll continue working with employers, employees, state leaders and stakeholders to ensure the final form of this legislation leads to the end of the state of emergency, protects our rights and also helps the state manage through the pandemic."

The bill was filed on Monday afternoon, following a meeting of dozens of legislators at the Indiana Statehouse.

Citizens opposing vaccine mandates had gathered on the third floor of the Statehouse that morning, and several legislators addressed them on exiting the meeting, according to Ashley Grogg, the founder of Hoosiers for Medical Liberty.

Grogg said Rep. Alan Morrison, R-Brazil, told the group the legislators who'd signed their names to the bill are hoping to get it passed before the end of the year.

The new session of the Indiana General Assembly does not officially begin until Jan. 3, but nurses and some other employees who testified last week said they could lose their jobs Jan. 4.

H.B. 1001 requires employers to grant requests for religious exemptions, and prohibits an employer from taking an "adverse employment action" against an employee who has requested or gotten an exemption.

In addition to the vaccine exemption provisions, the bill also amends the state's vaccine passport law, passed last April, to clarify that state universities may not issue immunization passports – with "immunization passport" defined in that law as being anything printed, written or electronic related to a person's immunization for COVID-19.

Indiana University, the largest state university, announced a vaccine mandate in May and initially required that students upload proof of vaccination. Following the filing of a lawsuit alleging that the university was violating students' constitutional rights and an opinion from the office of Attorney General Todd Rokita, the university asked instead that students only attest they'd been vaccinated.

This article originally ran on thecentersquare.com.

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