Tennessee lawmakers take aim at COVID-19 vaccination with bill to allow religious and conscience exemption

by | Nov 19, 2020

A bill introduced in the Tennessee legislature would remove provisions in state law that limit the application of religious exemptions from vaccination requirements in the case of an epidemic or where immunization is necessary to protect the health of others. The legislation appears directed at supporting those who object to a potential coronavirus vaccine requirement, despite the public health implications.

Current Tennessee law allows for robust religious exemptions from immunization requirements, including in the context of childhood vaccinations, those required for employment, or county health directives. Those provisions for an exemption, however, all apply only “in the absence of an epidemic or immediate threat of an epidemic.” HB 10 and its state senate twin, SB 7, would remove all “epidemic” exceptions, allowing blanket religious exemptions from all immunization requirements regardless of the severity of the threat to public health.

It also adds a new section to state law that even more broadly prohibits enforcement of any immunization requirement against those who object:

A state agency or department shall not promulgate or enforce any rule… that requires medical examination, immunization, or treatment for those who object to the medical examination, immunization, or treatment on religious grounds or by right of conscience.

 Tennessee Lookout reports on the timing of the legislation, which was filed November 17:

The bill’s introduction comes ahead of a promising rollout of a pair of COVID-19 vaccines that state health department director Dr. Lisa Piercey said earlier this week could be available in Tennessee as early as December 1 for at risk populations and healthcare providers, and as soon as this Spring for everyone else.

In a 2015 column during a religious liberty controversy surrounding a measles outbreak, BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman explained that “[r]eligious liberty does not require granting religious exemptions to immunization laws or similar interests that are required for public health and safety.” Though not required by the First Amendment, state legislatures may still seek to pass broad legislative exemptions. Whether that is a good idea, however, particularly in the face of a global pandemic that has to date killed more than 4,000 Tennesseans, is another question.