AZ Republicans hope to expand religious exemption protections
Businesses in Arizona would be fined if they deny their employees religious exemptions for the flu vaccine and any vaccine with emergency authorization under a GOP proposal on its way to the governor’s desk.
State law already allows employees to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine based on religious beliefs. But Senate Bill 1250, sponsored by a former nurse, would extend that right to any other vaccine authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under emergency conditions, like the initial COVID-19 vaccine was. It would also extend the exemption to the annual influenza vaccine.
Arizonans who aren’t offered the opportunity to file a religious exemption form, or whose request was denied and are later fired, would be able to reach out to the Attorney General’s Office, which could lead to an investigation and $5,000 fine for employers.
The measure also expands religious exemptions to vaccines to include moral or ethical objections, which weren’t previously covered.
The bill passed out of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on March 23 by a 31-29 vote, with conservative lawmakers defending it against criticism from Democrats as a protection of religious privacy.
“A ‘no’ vote on this bill is a vote to allow your boss to question your religious practices,” said Rep. Neal Carter, R-Queen Creek.
The proposal prohibits employers from verifying or inquiring further into an employee’s beliefs, beyond what is allowed under federal laws. Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recommends that employers err on the side of acceptance, but allows for some limited inquiry into how exactly the employee’s beliefs conflict with vaccine requirements.
Rep. Alma Hernandez, D-Tucson, rebutted that she has yet to see a religion that explicitly objects to vaccinations.
Mesa Republican Justin Heap said it was a question of bodily autonomy, sarcastically likening it to reproductive rights.
“I believe it’s my body, my choice, and the employer has no interest in what I do with my own body,” he said, to laughter and applause from Republican colleagues.
Some expressed concern over the burdens the bill would present to small businesses, or organizations that work closely with vulnerable populations, like retirement homes.
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe, noted that large hospitals have the means to afford legal counsel to ensure they are operating in compliance with state laws while meeting their patient’s needs, but smaller businesses don’t.
Currently, employers are directed to provide reasonable accommodation for employees with religious exemption requests, which can include wearing a mask, working remotely or being moved to an area where there is a risk of contact with vulnerable populations.
But employers in charge of small health care provider businesses may have few employees they can move around, and might implement a vaccine requirement to ensure they’re not understaffed due to preventable illness, Salman said. Religious exemptions, she added, should be weighed against the livelihood of small businesses and the safety of the vulnerable patients they care for.
“Religious freedom extends as far as the point of where it has the potential to do someone else harm,” Salman said.
While the proposal has been approved by both legislative chambers, it failed to garner bipartisan support, and approval from both parties is one of the factors Gov. Katie Hobbs has said will play into her decision to sign bills.