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The COVID-19 Vaccine Exemption Bill Was Moving Fast Until Opposition Piled Up

 Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Twp.) testifies for HB435, a bill to codify COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions.
Andy Chow
Ohio Public Radio
Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Twp.) testifies for HB435, a bill to codify COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions.

Ohio House Republican leadership is expected to revisit their attempt to address COVID-19 vaccine mandates after failing to fast-track a new bill without public testimony.

Rep. Rick Carfagna (R-Genoa Twp.) told the House Health committee on Tuesday that the bill, HB435, was a compilation of the different viewpoints legislators have heard over the last couple of months when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine policy.

"This legislation is sensible and responsible. It empowers Ohioans by ensuring the availability of clear, unambiguous COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions. It balances personal medical freedom and protecting the health and the safety of Ohioans," Carfagna said.

The bill from Carfagna and Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) would put into Ohio law three exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students in K-12 schools, or in private or public higher education institutions. The same exemptions would be extended to employees for private or public companies.

Those exemptions are:

  • Medical contraindications, for people with an existing condition to which the vaccine would be harmful
  • Natural immunity, for people who have already had COVID-19 and can prove they still have the antibodies
  • Reasons of conscience, for people who object to getting the shot for any reason with a special mention of religious conviction

Rep. Beth Liston (D-Dublin), who's an active physician, said the legislature should be doing things to encourage people to get the vaccine and that this goes in the wrong direction.

"We're talking about removing tools that are important for keeping people safe," Liston said. "It's still telling people, well, if you don't want the vaccine, all you have to do is write it down on a piece of paper, even if that's going to endanger others. And I think that's a problem."

Seitz addressed in committee the question of someone being able to object to getting the vaccine for reasons of conscience without a required explanation of that reason.

"Implicit in any transaction is the obligation of good faith. So I would hope that folks claiming a religious or conscience objection would be doing so in good faith," Seitz said.

Watch: Fast-tracked exemptions bill stalls before House vote

There are exemptions to the exemptions. They would not apply to employees or students that work in children's hospitals, intensive care units or critical care units.

Another provision of the bill states that the exemptions only apply to people employed in their current job at the effective date of the bill. As Carfagna explained, that would mean the bill is only for employees in their current job and would not apply to people who seek employment at a different company.

"If that company is going to be hiring somebody after the effective date of the bill and they do have a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in place, it will be applicable to that new hire without the exemptions. So that individual understands the terms of employment and can make that decision on their own, whether or not to accept those terms of employment," said Carfagna.

After an hour and a half of testimony, the bill was voted out of committee, bound for the House floor.

Rep. Allison Russo (D-Upper Arlington) denounced the process and said Republicans were rushing through important legislation.

"It's just a very bad way to make public policy and I think is an insult to this institution," Russo said.

As the vote moved closer, statements of opposition came out from influential business, health care groups and even the Ohio Christian Alliance, which had sent out an email earlier in the week with instructions on requesting religious exemption forms.

That opposition got louder with a statement against the bill from a group calling itself the "Ohio Vaccine Coalition," which includes the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the Ohio Hospital Association, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association and more than 100 other businesses and organizations.

The group said the bill fell short of what the state needs in order to work towards recovering from the pandemic.

The caucus has been split on the issue. Some want widespread bans on vaccine mandates while others want more protections for private businesses to make their own decisions.

Although House Republican leadership wanted to put it on the floor, they pulled it at the last minute after members within the Republican caucus raised objections.

Rep. Ron Ferguson (R-Wintersville) said they're optimistic a consensus can still be reached.

"But it's not quite there yet. And I think that we're going to continue to work on to firm it up and make sure it's exactly the right step," said Ferguson

The legislation will be re-referred to a House committee. House Speaker Bob Cupp (R-Lima) says he wants to continue working on this issue as soon as possible.
Copyright 2021 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.