The Mississippi State Capitol in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Mississippi House unexpectedly took up and passed legislation Thursday that would prevent private companies from forcing their employees to get a COVID-19 vaccination over “sincerely held religious objections.”

The bill, authored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, is a response to a battle currently raging between those opposed to various COVID-19 vaccine mandates issued by President Joe Biden. Some of those mandates have been upheld by the federal courts while others have not.

The bill passed 74-41 with all Democrats except Rep. Tom Miles of Forest voting no.

Besides exempting employees of private businesses from the vaccine mandate, it also would prohibit state and local governmental entities from forcing a vaccine mandate on their employees and would prohibit those entities from withholding services from people who have chosen not to be vaccinated.

The bill also would apply to the National Guard. The U.S. Department of Defense has mandated a vaccine mandate for members of the National Guard. That issue currently is in the federal courts.

There was lengthy, at times terse, debate on the bill and House Public Health Chairman Sam Mims, R-McComb, had to field many questions.

“I don’t see where this bill defines sincerely held religious beliefs,” said Rep. Shanda Yates, I-Jackson. “… Or who has the burden of proof, employees or employer? So we’re opening up all our employers to lawsuits. Our pro-business, Republican-led supermajority is going after our private businesses.”

“Would this apply to the Mississippi National Guard?” Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, asked, to which the answer was yes.

Rep. Thomas Reynolds, D-Charleston, said that George Washington in 1777 ordered Continental troops be vaccinated for smallpox that was raging through the country at the time. “There is a precedent for vaccination in our National Guard,” Reynolds said.

Mims said, “We are giving religious liberty to our public and private employees in Mississippi … It will be up to that employer to verify that employee’s sincerity.”

Rep. Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, said, “Maybe I missed something. We are still in a pandemic, aren’t we?”

Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, after the vote said: “So, we’ve said that a business doesn’t have to serve someone if they are LGBTQ, doesn’t have to bake them a cake or anything if they don’t want to. But with this we’re telling them they have to serve or employ someone? I guess they just pick and choose who has liberty or rights.”

Hines was referring to a bill passed in 2016 that allowed entities not to provide services based on religious reasons.

It is not clear what the impact of the legislation will be. Most of the vaccine mandates proposed by the president have included religious exceptions or an opportunity for people who choose not to be vaccinated to undergo regular testing for COVID-19. And few if any governmental entities in the state have imposed vaccine mandates.

It also is unclear how many Mississippi companies, such as Ingalls Shipbuilding on the Gulf Coast, would be impacted by the legislation if the president ultimately prevails in the courts on his mandate that companies and entities that receive federal funds require its employees to be vaccinated.

The bill could place Ingalls, which is dependent on federal contracts, in a precarious situation of having to choose to obey state or federal mandates.

Mims said the legislation would not ease the multiple vaccine mandates currently in state law for students both in secondary schools and in colleges and universities.

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