COVID-19 Exemptions Bill Clears WV Senate

“God help West Virginia” — West Virginia Senator Michael J. Maroney (R-Marshall, 2).

Does the government have the right to require that businesses force their employees to receive an immunization as a condition of employment? Right now, this question is being fiercely debated in homes and workplaces throughout the United States. There is no easy answer.

On Tuesday, Oct. 19, the West Virginia Senate took up the debate following House passage of Bill 335 —which provides medical and religious exemptions from employer-mandated COVID-19 vaccine requirements. Ultimately, the Senate passed an amendment to the bill, but by the smallest margin with 17 yeas, 16 nays and one absent vote.

Before Senate passage, the bill was met with gripping debate between the senators as they discussed everything from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to state versus federal rights and healthcare. The statement from Maroney quoted at the beginning of this article was made during these discussions as he spoke against the bill.

“We aren’t getting rid of a mandate, we are putting a mandate on private businesses,” Maroney said. “That’s what we are doing here.” He continued that this bill is “the biggest piece of trash” he has seen since he has been in the Senate because it takes away what he believes is the right for businesses to determine conditions of employment.

Senator Michael Romano (D, Harrison-12) also spoke out against the amendment proposed by Senator Eric Tarr (R, Putnam-4).

At issue for Romano was the question about the federal supremacy clause and the possibility that West Virginia hospitals may lose Medicaid and Medicare funding if the state passes a bill that is not in compliance with the federal plan.

In September, President Joe Biden announced his “Path Out of the Pandemic” plan. The plan includes implementing a rule that employers with 100 or more employees ensure that workers are either fully vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19. The plan also requires that all federal employees and federally contracted workers are vaccinated, as well as all health care workers who are employed at facilities that participate in Medicare and Medicaid.

Tarr’s argument for his amendment was that the state is not “setting federal law” against Biden’s plan with this bill. “Federal law will trump anything that we do here,” he continued, adding that if the federal government passes a new law, the state will bring this bill into compliance.

The bill does not mean that employers “cannot mandate the vaccine,” he explained. He said it does, however, allow employees to file for injunctive relief in a court system if they have followed the correct process for showing their employer that they have a medical or religious exemption.

“This bill appears to me to be awfully reckless and unnecessary,” Romano said in response to Tarr’s comments. “Speaking with the gentleman from Putnam, our bill is going to be subservient to federal law. If it is, why do we need our bill?”

He added that, in his opinion, the West Virginia bill is just a “skeleton” of the federal law. “My concern is that it will create skeletons amongst citizens—which there’s already been too many.”

He also stated that the bill sets a bad precedent that it is okay for anyone to declare religious exemptions when they don’t want to do something. He then noted that religious exemptions are “sacred” for those with truly “deeply held religious beliefs.”

As for medical exemptions, he said that lawyers and doctors will be the two groups of people that benefit financially from the bill. The 600,000 state residents who are on Medicaid and Medicare will be the ones who get hurt if funding is denied.

“Freedom is to run your business in the way that you see fit,” he concluded. If employees do not like the rules brought forth by an employer, they are free to find another job.

Senate President Craig Blair (R, Berkley-15) stood before the Senate and offered his argument in favor of the bill. He said that Republicans “care about the people.”

“If you want to raise a family, you need to have employment opportunities, unless you are extremely, extremely wealthy,” Blair said. He stated he is receiving messages that Senate Republicans are working against the people, but he added that conservatives are working toward “unwinding government overreach” that has an influence on a person’s personal life.

“I am not telling anyone to not get the vaccine,” Blair said. “That’s a personal choice and, to be quite honest with you, I think you should get the vaccine. But, again, it’s a personal choice because that’s what this country was founded on. This vaccine . . . has not been proven like the other ones that are mandated and ruled by the Supreme Court.”

“Frankly, I think this harkens back to Nazi Germany,” Blair continued. “Our federal government is using federal dollars to coerce the citizens in this country to be obedient to the state.”

He told Senators that whether or not they are for or against the bill, that kind of overreach “is a problem.” He said that terms of employment should not declare that an employee should be required to receive a vaccine that has had little testing.

“When you take away the personal choice by telling people to have mortgages, to have car payments, to have children to feed, that they are no longer going to be employed, no fault of their own, that again harkens back in time that I don’t think we should go there.”

He concluded that he believes the Senate is “doing the best they can in a difficult circumstance.”

“We are on the right track. I think that what we are doing here today is the right thing to do, regardless of what the doctors or the lawyers tell us,” Blair said. “Sometimes you don’t have to be a specialist in something to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

As of this writing, the bill has not passed completion and is in concurrence.

The West Virginia Daily News will provide updates as they become available.

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