House committee approves changes to Health Care Right of Conscience Act, clears way for vote on House floor

Illinois Capitol News

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Illinois lawmakers are inching closer to strengthening Governor J.B. Pritzker’s power to enforce vaccine and testing mandates, despite a flood of criticism circulating online.

The House Executive Committee approved a plan to alter the Health Care Right of Conscience Act on Tuesday, clearing the way for the House to vote on the Pritzker-backed proposal later this week. Republicans opposed the plan, arguing it would remove a remedy for workers to sue their employers for discrimination against their religious right to refuse medical services.

Pritzker announced a vaccine mandate for teachers last month, providing an alternative for teachers who refuse a vaccine to be tested weekly. However, state law explicitly protects workers who claim a religious or medical exemption to taking a vaccine or a medical test. Since then, several employers, including school districts, reported that their workers were citing a portion of the state law to refuse Coronavirus vaccines or tests.

The civil protections written into state law were initially intended to protect medical professionals who objected to performing abortion procedures or providing birth control. If their employers tried to force them to do something that violated their conscience, the law promised them legal recourse to sue for discrimination. The Pritzker administration told lawmakers they want to protect employers from a flood of Coronavirus related lawsuits from workers who refused the vaccine or the test under those grounds.

Catholic bishops opposed weakening the law, criticizing government desire for “expediency,” but Bishop Thomas John Paprocki from the Springfield Diocese said employers who mandate Coronavirus tests as an alternative to vaccines are “reasonable.”

“The Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act was not intended to cover things like testing or taking precautions like wearing a mask,” Paprocki said. “I think that’s just common sense.”

Several Facebook groups that have rallied supporters to oppose vaccine mandates recruited their followers to fill out witness slips on the General Assembly’s website. Within 24 hours, nearly 50,000 witness slips appeared online from people claiming they opposed the House amendment to the Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

“It’s an organized effort of misinformation, and it’s very concerning to me,” Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston) said on Tuesday night after the committee approved her bill.

Some of the critics who opposed vaccine mandates also sent menacing threats to her office. In a Facebook message Gabel’s office sent to law enforcement, one man from the Rockford area referred to her bill as “rape by needle,” and threatened to force a medical procedure on Gabel against her consent. Others leveled vile, sexist insults, or referred to her as “Satan,” or a “witch.”

“I think it’s unfair,” she said. “I think it’s unreasonable, and it’s scary.”

Legal experts say federal law and established case law protect an employer’s right to enforce vaccine mandates. Gabel argues her proposal wouldn’t change the existing power to enforce mandates, it would simply remove an illegitimate excuse people have used to try and skirt the vaccine or testing requirements.

“I think people are looking for a loophole and another way to avoid protecting both themselves and everybody they work for,” Gabel said.

“My motivation is to protect the people of this state,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. 700,000 people have died in this country alone, 5 million throughout the world. My goal is to really protect people and save lives.”

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