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Indiana lawmakers debating public health, personal freedom

January 23, 2021 GMT
Members of the Indiana House convene in the House chamber in the Indiana Government Center in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. The House is meeting in a conference room in the state office building to increase social distancing due to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Members of the Indiana House convene in the House chamber in the Indiana Government Center in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. The House is meeting in a conference room in the state office building to increase social distancing due to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — As Indiana’s Republican-dominated Legislature returned to session, nearly a dozen bills drafted by GOP legislators have sparked debate in the Statehouse over where to draw the line between public health and personal freedom.

In the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 9,000 in Indiana, lawmakers face contention over emergency health orders, school and business closures, vaccine requirements and other protocols spurred by COVID-19. In question is whether such precautions are necessary to stem the spread of the virus or infringements on rights.

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“There’s a majority of the House and Senate in Indiana that like personal freedom and personal choice,” said Republican Sen. Dennis Kruse, who has authored or co-authored three bills. “I don’t think that government should be in charge of health care, or intervening in health care in our lives, for the most part.”

One measure up for consideration, introduced by Kruse, would prohibit Indiana employers from requiring workers to get immunizations against COVID-19 or any other disease. Workers could decline vaccinations for medical, religious or reasons of personal “conscience.” They would also be allowed to sue an employer that required immunizations as a condition of employment.

Many of those who support the bill said it’s necessary to protect personal freedom, with Kruse noting its intention “is to stop the trend of employers or government telling me what to do with my body.”

Leah Wilson, executive director of Stand for Health Freedom, a not-for-profit dedicated to protecting parental rights, said any vaccination mandate would be “immoral and unethical.”

People should be able to decide for themselves whether to get vaccinated, said Ashley Grogg, a nurse and founder of Hoosiers for Medical Liberty. The group — which advocates for legislation against employer-mandated vaccines — was one of several who worked with Kruse to draft the legislation.

“The Constitution says that the individual comes first, and I think everybody should be allowed to make an informed decision,” Grogg said. “You need to be able to understand what you’re signing up for, what the risks are, and what the true benefits are, and be able to say ‘no’ if you choose.”

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But several health and business organizations, including the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, have spoken against the bill. They said it could make workplaces unsafe, including hospitals and nursing homes, where people work closely together, and people’s immunization systems are at risk.

“We know that we have a duty to provide a safe workplace for our employees,” said Mike Ripley, the chamber’s vice president for health care and employment law. Most employers are not going to mandate vaccinations, Ripley continued, but there are settings where it makes sense.

The Indiana Immunization Coalition is also “very concerned” about the bill’s implications on all vaccines, not just those specific to COVID-19, said Patrick Glew, the coalition’s operations coordinator.

“This would set a precedent for all vaccines, all around the state, setting us up for outbreaks, which are extremely costly,” Glew said. “If you do not have to get a vaccine for these as a hospital worker, as a doctor, as a nurse, as somebody else who works in healthcare, you’re not only making decisions for yourself, you’re making a decision for everybody else that you treat. You’re putting them at risk, which is horrible.”

Republican Sen. Jean Leising — who called herself “a big personal freedom person” — said that while she thought the COVID-19 vaccine should be voluntary, she’s doing “everything in (her) power” to encourage others to get inoculated.

“I think it should be a choice,” she said. “But I see myself as having a responsibility to educate people and promote this vaccine.”

Of greater concern to the southeastern Indiana senator, however, is how lawmakers will respond to the hardships of the pandemic on businesses. In her mostly rural, southeastern Indiana district, small businesses “have been hit very hard by COVID-19,” with many required by state or local mandates to close for weeks or months, and some forced to close permanently.

Many of her constituents felt those restrictions were “overboard,” Leising said, and business owners have been left with “too little” recourse.

Those frustrations are what Leising said prompted 35 GOP senators, herself included, to sponsor the senate bill, which would establish a process for business owners to appeal local health orders or enforcement actions. Other measures would further provide civil immunity to businesses whose workers or consumers get sick or die from the virus.

“It should be a personal choice how much people expose themselves, whether at restaurants, stores, the dry cleaners,” Leising said. “And with more immunity and a clearer process to push back on local (health) orders, I think businesses might not feel so afraid to stay open.”

Up for debate, too, is whether to roll back the governor’s authority to issue emergency restrictions.

Several proposals aim to amend Indiana law that allows the governor to declare a public emergency – like the health emergency issued by Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb in March to stem coronavirus spread – for 30 days. Currently, there’s no limit on how many times an order can be renewed. Holcomb’s order, which he has used to issue the statewide mask mandate and order the closure of businesses deemed nonessential during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, has been renewed nearly a dozen times.

One bill, authored by House majority leader Rep. Matt Lehman, would limit state of emergency orders to 30 days. To renew the order, the governor would have to call a special session and get approval from lawmakers.

“As a legislator I think we should have been more engaged in the process, figuring out how to respond to this pandemic, and certainly more involved in how some of the money Indiana got from the federal government was spent,” Leising said. “We want to make sure that’s the case moving forward.”

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Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.