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Weaker conscience law goes to Senate amid GOP taunts

October 29, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2020, file photo, Newly sworn-in Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, delivers speaks after taking the oath of office in the Illinois Senate at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, is sponsoring legislation to carve out an exception for the COVID-19 vaccination to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2020, file photo, Newly sworn-in Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, delivers speaks after taking the oath of office in the Illinois Senate at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, is sponsoring legislation to carve out an exception for the COVID-19 vaccination to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2020, file photo, Newly sworn-in Illinois Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, delivers speaks after taking the oath of office in the Illinois Senate at the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill. Harmon, a Democrat from Oak Park, is sponsoring legislation to carve out an exception for the COVID-19 vaccination to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. (Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP, File)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Senate approved on Thursday night a weakened and criticized plan to preserve ramifications for those who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Democrats who control both houses of the General Assembly struggled through caustic debate all week in pushing a COVID carve-out of the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act. The Senate endorsed the plan 31-24 on the last day of the Legislature’s fall session.

Initially approved in the 1970s to protect physicians from repercussions for refusing, based on religious beliefs, to perform abortions, supporters argue the law was never intended to give similar protections to people who refuse to get a preventive shot in a worldwide pandemic.

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“Your right to exercise your religious belief is not always without consequence and the Health Care Right of Conscience is not a defense in certain circumstances...,” Harmon said during floor debate. “You’ve asked where we draw the line. The line of my personal liberty ends at the beginning of your nose.”

Lawsuits have sprung up — nine alone in which Gov. J.B. Pritzker or other public agencies are defendants — in which repercussions, such as losing a job, are being contested based on the right of conscience law.

Republicans have taunted their opponents, accusing Democrats of changing the rules midstream because Pritzker can’t get sufficient buy-in to his virus mitigation plan, ridiculed by the GOP as a series of top-down demands without public input.

The proposal, which now goes to Pritzker, doesn’t require anyone to be vaccinated. It targets the law’s language prohibiting retribution, such as dismissal from a job, in the case of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“This means we can keep kids in school, businesses open, neighbors safe, and continue on the path to bring this pandemic to an end,” Pritzker said in a prepared statement.

Senate President Don Harmon, the Oak Park Democrat sponsoring the legislation, shot down provocative Republican suggestions that the change opens the door to a carnival of conscience claims.

Tamara Williams said she explicitly laid out her religious objections to being vaccinated or submitting to weekly COVID-19 testing to Indian Prairie School District 204, based in Aurora, where she was a teacher’s aide. But the school district rejected her plea and she was dismissed last Friday.

She told the Senate Executive Committee Thursday that she’s accepted other required inoculations, “but this vaccine is different.”

“It only rolled out in less than a year. There is a lot of documentation on adverse reactions. And according to my religious beliefs, there is fetal cell line material in all of the vaccines that I am 100% against...,” Williams said. “We should have the right to decide what goes into our bodies.”

Proponents contend the place to invoke religious exemptions from medical care is in federal law. Pritzker’s office pointed to general religious protections and those prohibiting workplace discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act and age and genetic information discrimination laws.

But even if there’s a Senate OK and Pritzker signs it without delay, it won’t stop any lawsuits for months. To take effect immediately, it would have required approval by three-fifths majorities in both houses, more than Democrats could whip. As it stands now, the law wouldn’t take effect until mid-next year.

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Follow Political Writer John O’Connor at https://twitter.com/apoconnor