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Idaho House passes bill designed to criminalize employer vaccine mandates

The House in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The House in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Each violation of the bill would carry a fine up to $1,000

The Idaho House of Representatives passed a bill Tuesday that would make it a crime for most employers to require a coronavirus vaccine or make an employee disclose their vaccination status.

The Idaho House voted 39-29 to pass House Bill 581. If passed into law, it would become a misdemeanor for employers to refuse to hire or to fire someone for not being vaccinated for a coronavirus or any vaccine made available under an emergency use authorization. It would also become illegal to refuse to hire or to fire an employee for refusing to disclose their vaccination status.

Each violation of the bill would be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.

The bill includes exemptions that would make it inapplicable to health care providers or to the federal government and federal agencies, which the state has no authority over.

Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, sponsored the bill, which he called the Employee Medical Information Protection Act. It is a rewritten version of House Bill 410 from the 2021 legislative session, which Shepherd pushed when legislators reconvened in November. Shepherd’s 2021 bill was sent out for possible amendments and never advanced.

“What I am trying to do is to ensure the individual rights of the citizens of this state that they do not have to give up those rights just to keep their jobs,” Shepherd said when presenting the new bill Tuesday.

The coronavirus vaccine has been tested in clinical trials, and public health officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare have said the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective for preventing infection from the virus that causes COVID-19. The vaccine protects against hospitalization and serious illness.

Shepherd and other Republican legislators who backed the bill made several statements without providing facts or evidence to back them up.

“If business has to mandate vaccines because of the government telling them to, businesses in my area are going to go broke, because the employees are going to walk. They are not going to get vaccinated with this untested, unproven vaccine,” Shepherd said.

“I don’t want to really get into the effectiveness or the ineffectiveness of the vaccine because that’s not this issue,” Shepherd added.

Bill opposed by both Republicans and Democrats

Although the Idaho House passed the bill, it did attract opposition from both major political parties.

“I cannot believe this is where we are in this body, that we are going to regulate private businesses and tell private businesses what they can do,” Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said.

Rep. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, voted against the bill after telling legislators his daughter and son-in-law are immunocompromised.

“Now with this bill, if they want to hire somebody to come into their house and they say ‘You know what, we would like you to be vaccinated,’ whether you agree it works or don’t agree, that’s their personal right to ask,” Syme said. “Now what you are saying is now you are going to make my daughter a criminal and punish her with a $1,000 fine. You know, I, too, can’t believe that we have gotten to this point where we’re going to do that to my daughter’s individual liberty to ask.”

Rep. Laurie Lickley, R-Jerome, voted against the bill after saying it adds additional regulatory burden to businesses that are already overburdened.

“For the same reasons that I have firmly and very strongly opposed what the federal government is trying to do on our businesses for vaccination mandates, I can’t in good conscience do the same thing from the seat I have and the vote I have today on our business community in the state of Idaho. Idaho is an at-will work state, and I don’t want to change that,” Lickley said.

Conservative legislators back bill to protect freedom, liberty

However, conservative legislators who backed the bill said it was all about protecting individuals freedom and liberty, and it is important for the Idaho Legislature to get involved as a referee.

“I stand again today to support individual rights,” Rep. Greg Ferch, R-Boise, said.

Ferch said that he has lived a lifestyle that makes COVID-19 irrelevant to him. In debate over a different bill later on Tuesday, Ferch quipped that he would not be allowed into Australia because he is unvaccianted.

After about an hour-long debate, the Idaho House voted 39-29 to pass House Bill 581.

To become law, House Bill 581 would still need to pass the Idaho Senate and be signed into law by Gov. Brad Little or allowed to become law without his signature.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.