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Following one’s conscience or ‘fringe elements?’ State seeks to bar moral exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine refusal

The amendment to the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act is intended to make clear that public officials and private companies can impose COVID-19 requirements as a condition of employment — and fire those who refuse to comply.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest against COVID-19 mandates outside City Hall Monday morning.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest against COVID-19 mandates outside City Hall Monday morning.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Employees would be barred from citing their moral beliefs as a valid reason for refusing to comply with a workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandate, under a measure state legislators are expected to take up when they return to Springfield this week.

The amendment to the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act is intended to make clear that public officials and private companies can impose COVID-19 requirements as a condition of employment — and fire those who refuse to comply.

The act, on the books since 1998, was originally designed to protect doctors, nurses and other health care providers who refused to perform medical procedures — such as abortions — that they’re opposed to. New language would be added clarifying the right of conscience objection does not apply to COVID-19 requirements.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the act was “never intended to allow people to avoid public health guidance and jeopardize workplace safety during a global pandemic.

“The administration supports efforts to clarify the law, so it cannot be misinterpreted by fringe elements,” the spokeswoman said.

Under the amendment, filed Monday, it’s not a violation of the law for any public official, public or private association, agency or employer to “take any measures or impose any requirements,” including those that involve provision of services by a physician or health care personnel “intended to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19 or any pathogens that result in COVID-19 or any of its subsequent iterations.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives an update on COVID-19 pediatric vaccinations during a news conference, Monday.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker gives an update on COVID-19 pediatric vaccinations during a news conference, Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The amendment goes on to say it’s not a violation of the Health Care Right of Conscience Act to enforce the measure through “terminating employment or excluding individuals from a school, a place of employment, or public or private premises in response to noncompliance.”

“Conscience rights” are what health care providers can invoke when they refuse to provide various services on religious or moral grounds, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Under the Illinois measure, employees would still be able to cite religious and health reasons for not adhering to COVID-19 requirements.

State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, who filed the amendment to the Illinois law, did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation.

A spokeswoman for state Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, R-Hawthorn Woods, said the leader and other members of the Senate Republican caucus “remain extremely skeptical of any effort by the government to mandate Illinoisans to take medical action in contradiction to their sincerely held personal beliefs.”

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, left, and Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, right, meet with the Sun-Times Editorial Board over Zoom In April.
House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, left, and Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie, right, meet with the Sun-Times Editorial Board over Zoom In April.
Screen image.

House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The Health Care Right of Conscience Act has been cited by some looking to sidestep vaccine mandates.

Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara, who is battling Mayor Lori Lightfoot over the city’s vaccine mandate, told ABC7 “at face value, it’s usable.”

Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara speaks at a protest against COVID-19 mandates outside City Hall before a Chicago City Council meeting Monday morning.
Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara speaks at a protest against COVID-19 mandates outside City Hall before a Chicago City Council meeting Monday morning.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Conversations around changes to the state right of conscience act started a few months ago when it became clear some Illinois residents were using the law as an “excuse not to participate in workplace safety requirements,” a source within the governor’s office said.

Over the last few weeks, discussions have been underway with the General Assembly’s leaders, individual members and outside stakeholders, the source said.

If passed, the updated legislation will go into effect immediately.

Legislators return to Springfield for their last three slated days of the fall veto session Tuesday. Their agenda will likely include the right of conscience amendment, voting on new congressional boundaries and creating incentives for electric vehicle manufacturers.

House Democratic sources said plans to vote on a repeal of the controversial Parental Notification of Abortion Act are currently “iffy.” The language related to that repeal is still being worked out, and legislators, as well as advocacy groups, are pulling together the votes needed to pass the measure.

Correction: A previous version of this report contained incorrect information about what objections would be eliminated by the change in language to the law. Employees would still be able to cite religious reasons for not adhering to COVID-19 requirements.