Opponents of conscientious objector exemption for vaccines say bill isn’t ‘misunderstood’  

By: - April 21, 2022 5:50 am
A man wears a pin that says "I do not comply" on a "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt

A man protests against vaccine mandates outside the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on March 13, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage | Getty Images)

The sponsor of a divisive bill that would create a broad and undefined “conscience” objection to existing exemptions from workplace vaccine mandates urged a Senate committee to support it Wednesday, saying it only reaffirms what employers can already do. 

House Bill 1​​210 is probably the most misunderstood bill of this entire session,” Rep. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, told the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “Easily.”

Lang was followed by nearly a dozen speakers who disagreed. They described his bill as dangerous legislation that would risk public health, interfere with business owners’ rights, and potentially cost hospitals and nursing homes more than $2.3 billion a year in federal Medicaid and Medicare funding.

“This is not the most misunderstood bill,” said David Juvet, senior vice president of the statewide Business and Industry Association. “If we oppose certain aspects of this bill, it doesn’t mean we misunderstand it. It means we understand it too clearly.”

Employers must currently consider requests for religious and medical exemptions, but are not required to provide them. If they do, they must offer workers a “reasonable” accommodation, which during COVID-19 has included working remotely, masking, or regular testing. 

The bill, which passed the House, 181-155, in March, would make two significant changes to existing law governing workplace vaccine mandates: It would create a new moral or conscience exemption, and require all public and private employers who receive any public funding to grant those exemptions without question. Affected employers would include hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical facilities.

Lang said his bill is in line with New Hampshire’s constitutional right of conscience, a phrase that is narrowly tied in the Bill of Rights to religious freedom. Lang argued adding that right in the law would further protect an employee’s right to a religious exemption to a vaccine mandate. (The state Supreme Court rejected that legal argument in a 1937 case challenging school vaccine requirements.)

Among the bill’s other opponents Wednesday were dozens of health care organizations, including the New Hampshire Nurses Association, New Hampshire Hospital Association, Bi-State Primary Care Association, and New Hampshire Medical Society. They were joined by the New Hampshire College and University Council, the New Hampshire Association of Counties, and lobbyist Alex Koutroubas testifying on behalf of the state’s Meals on Wheels providers, residential care homes, and the 10-member Community Support Network, which serves people with disabilities and acquired brain disorders. 

“It’s an attack on business. It’s an attack on public health,” Koutroubas said. “It’s wrong, and you should (kill) it.”

Paula Minnehan, senior vice president for government relations at the New Hampshire Hospital Association, warned the bill would render vaccine requirements moot. 

She said it would also jeopardize federal funding to state-run and private hospitals that accept Medicaid and Medicare funding, totaling $2.3 billion to facilities across the state in 2020. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services would not allow Lang’s proposed conscience exemption.

“While (the COVID-19 vaccine) may not eliminate the infection, it reduces severe illness and hospitalization and that is obviously our concern,” Minnehan said. “And that is why, I believe, (the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) has put in these pretty significant requirements to ensure that in fact patients are protected and our most vulnerable are protected.”

If a prior committee vote on a similar bill is any indication, HB 1210 faces an uphill battle. 

This week, the committee voted in support of House Bill 1604, after a conscience exemption requirement had been removed by the House. The bill initially sought to require an exemption for employees of public hospitals, such as the state hospital, Glencliff Home, and county nursing homes.

HB 1604 now only requires employers to grant medical and religious exemptions. It goes before the full Senate Thursday with a 5-0 committee recommendation that it pass.

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]