By Brandon Moseley
The Alabama Senate approved two pieces of legislation Tuesday that would severely limit the ability of employers and schools to carry out President Joe Biden’s (D) COVID-19 vaccine mandates. But, in order for anything to pass, the legislature would likely have to stay at least one extra day in the special session.
Both bills passed the Senate after a lengthy debate and have been forwarded to the Alabama House of Representatives. It is unclear at this time if House leadership will even allow the body to address this issue at all – which was not part of the Governor’s call for holding the special session.
Thousands of Alabamians have refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine and are facing the threat of losing their jobs as a result.
Senate Bill 9 would give any employee who claims a medical or religious exemption virtually unfettered ability to get that exemption. SB 9 is sponsored by State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Fairhope).
Under SB 9, employees who claim a medical reason for not taking the COVID vaccine would not be required to provide proof that they really have a medical issue. The employer or school would not be able to inquire as to what that medical condition is. Many employers across Alabama have been requiring their employees to provide documentation from their doctor and, in some cases, even medical records to prove claims that they are at a high risk of suffering an adverse reaction to the vaccine. Even after filling out these forms, there are reports that exemptions have still been denied by employers.
Some employers are requiring that employees who claim a religious exemption from the COVID vaccine provide documentation from a priest, rabbi, or minister that they are actively practicing their faith and their religious views have been consistent, even before the COVID vaccine mandates. There are anecdotal reports of some employers who have rejected every employee waiver applied for on religious grounds. SB 9 would require employers to accept the religious exemption without employer review and the ability to deny it.
“I am appalled that you would have the audacity to bring a bill after so many thousands and thousands of people have passed away from COVID,” Sen. Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) said. “You are putting so many people at risk.
“I am appalled by this bill because we are talking about the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens. We are to make laws to protect the health, safety, and welfare of everyone. True, some people don’t care about their health, safety, and welfare; but they can’t put others in harm’s way.”
Figures said that persons granted an exemption, “Should be required to have a negative COVID test every week.”
“The health and safety of the federal government and the citizens they serve, that is essential to the foundation of the civil service, requires immediate action,” Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) said, quoting President Biden. “The CDC has found that the best way to do that is through vaccination.”
SB 9 passed on a party-line 26 to 5 vote.
Senate Bill 15 would prevent schools and other entities from vaccinating a minor child. It also says that the Attorney General is the enforcement mechanism for the state’s ban on vaccine passports, and defines what a vaccine is under Alabama law.
SB 15 is sponsored by State Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur).
The bill was amended on the Senate floor by Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) so that businesses, schools, and medical providers can deny service to persons who do not follow the pre-COVID vaccination schedule.
Sen. Jim McClendon (R-Springville) spoke against the amendment.
“You cannot give medical providers the right to deny services to individuals who don’t follow the recommended vaccine schedule,” McClendon said. “What’s next? Allowing a provider to tell a patient, 'I gave you an exercise plan and you didn’t follow it so I am denying treatment?'”
SB 15 also passed the Senate.
Smitherman said that laws limiting Biden’s COVID mandates are unconstitutional because federal law has supremacy over state laws.
“This ain’t going to work because of the Supremacy Clause,” Smitherman said. "I ain’t going to say nothing. I am just going to smile. We are going to waste all this money and lose in court.
“Some folks just don’t want to accept the truth,” Smitherman added.
Some in the business community are lobbying to block or modify legislation granting Alabama citizens’ health care freedom and limiting the employers’ ability to enforce vaccine mandates.
State Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) said, “You say you are pro-business but at the same time you cut the legs under business. Yes, this is a right-to-work state, but if you own a business, if this passes you don’t have any way to ensure the safety of the people who work at your business or the safety of your customers.”
Healthcare freedom advocates have expressed disappointment with the legislation because they wanted the ability to hold businesses civilly liable for vaccine side effects in employees whom the employer coerced into getting the vaccine. They also opposed the Singleton amendment.
Health Freedom Alabama released a statement. “BOTH bills passed out of the Senate today with even more changes. No matter which way you look at them, neither of those bills are a solution for our employees in this state.
“SB 9 still leaves employees susceptible to discrimination. Your employer may be required to accept your exemptions but in no way does it prevent your employer from requiring you to do COVID testing as often as they choose, forcing you to wear a 'scarlet letter' or mask, demote, refuse to promote ... and the list goes on. We are hearing that the BCA and the Medical Association have plenty of changes in mind - and be assured that they won't be any good for 'We the People,'” the group claimed.
“SB 15 has NO protection for employees and now it threatens to once again allow businesses and health care providers to refuse goods and services to you based on your vaccine status outside of COVID-19. All of our supportive families who haven't been able to find a care provider could (if this passes) once again find themselves looking for a doctor who won't discriminate against them,” the group stated.
The special session was called by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to address redistricting and a supplemental appropriation of the American Rescue Act funds. Both of those missions were accomplished by the end of the day on Wednesday.
If the legislature is going to consider either SB 9 or SB 15, then the legislature must come back at least for a Thursday session to have time for the House to address the legislation. Super majorities would be required in both houses for the legislation to pass, since Gov. Ivey's special session call didn't address these issues.
The question now is whether House leadership will allow either bill on the floor. It is possible that they could simply pass the redistricting bills and the supplemental appropriation bill the governor wants and then go home without addressing COVID mandates.