Free Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations, and booster shots, were available to students, staff and the general public at Jackson State University, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

The Senate after much debate — and efforts to make the measure stronger — passed a House bill to prohibit private companies and Mississippi governments from requiring COVID-19 vaccination of employees over their “sincerely held religious objections.”

But the Senate added a change to the bill to ensure more debate and scrutiny before it could be sent to the governor and signed into law. This was out of fear that the measure could jeopardize federal funding for state universities.

The Senate passed House Bill 1509 on a 36-15, party line vote with Republicans voting in favor. The bill, authored by Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, passed the House in a mostly party line vote in January.

“The Senate passed a strong, conservative bill which protects employees and children attending school in Mississippi from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate,” said Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann. “I personally support a broader bill providing a religious exemption for vaccine requirements for schools and will support that provision when it is properly before the Senate.”

READ MORE: House passes anti-vaccine mandate bill

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, offered an amendment to provide such a broad exemption from any vaccine requirements, not just COVID-19. But a point of order was raised that the original bill applied only to COVID-19 and his amendment was too expansive. Hosemann ruled it was too expansive an amendment. McDaniel took the unusual step of appealing Hosemann’s ruling to the full Senate, which voted 34-16 to uphold Hosemann’s ruling.

“This may not seem like a civil rights issue, but it is a civil rights issue — the right of people to control what goes into their body,” McDaniel said.

A group of supporters of the vaccine mandate ban packed the Senate gallery, and had to be warned twice by Hosemann to stop cheering when lawmakers made anti-vaccine mandate statements.

Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Tupelo, offered an unsuccessful amendment to allow a medical-condition exemption to any vaccine mandate. Although his amendment failed, he was assured that is already in state law.

“We’re here today because the federal government overstepped its authority to tell people they have to take an experimental vaccine,” McMahan said.

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, told his colleagues he represents “ground zero” for vaccine mandates, with Ingalls Shipbuilding in his district. The shipyard enacted a vaccine mandate, but later suspended it as 20% of its 11,500 employees faced termination for not being vaccinated.

“Those employees shouldn’t be put in the position at all,” Wiggins said.

But Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, questioned whether the bill could jeopardize community health.

“So the rights of the individual trump the rights of society?” Horhn said, drawing a loud cheer from supporters of the bill in the gallery. “Their rights are going to trump the safety of a whole city, whole community or the whole state? By pushing individual rights, we could be putting a lot of people at risk.”

“That’s a risk we’re willing to take for protecting individual rights,” said Sen. Dennis DeBar, R-Leakesville.

But DeBar successfully added a “reverse repealer” amendment to the measure to provide more time to scrutinize the bill and make sure it doesn’t “jeopardize federal funds for IHL.” This means the House and Senate would have to vote on the measure again before it could be signed into law.

The bill is a response to a battle raging since last year 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.

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

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.