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South Dakota House rewrites Noem’s vaccine exemption bill

March 8, 2022 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota House Republicans on Monday passed a completely rewritten version of a bill from Gov. Kristi Noem to allow employees to gain exemptions from their employer’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates, setting up a statehouse clash over the proposal.

House lawmakers, in a snub to the governor’s bill, rewrote it to allow employees to cite any objection of their conscience. Noem’s initial bill, which had passed the Senate, would allow employees to avoid mandates by citing either a medical exemption, religious grounds for refusal or a test showing antibodies against COVID-19 in the last six months.

President Joe Biden’s administration pushed vaccine mandates through employers last year to boost the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate and slow the spread of the coronavirus.

South Dakota Republicans have exchanged barbs for months over competing proposals to allow employees to gain exemptions from vaccination requirements, with a group of House conservatives pushing broader exemptions.

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The intra-party squabble comes as the state’s vaccination rate of 60% of people fully vaccinated lags behind the nationwide rate of 65%.

“We trust the people of South Dakota to make the right decisions for themselves,” said Republican Rep. Rhonda Milstead as she pushed for the broadened exemption.

After the House last month passed a separate bill to allow an exemption on any objection of an employee’s conscience, Noem said her proposal would work best and that lawmakers needed “to remember what the role of government is and what it is not.”

The Republican-controlled Senate later dismissed the House’s initial bill.

The House and Senate have passed completely different versions of Noem’s bill, and both chambers would have to find agreement on a proposal if a state exemption law is to be enacted.

South Dakota has seen a decrease in reported COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks. The Department of Health on Monday reported 122 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 infections, marking a decline from January when the number topped 400 — the highest rate in over a year.