The upside-down politics of bill that ended moral belief exemption to COVID tests, vaccine

It all happened because some folks who won’t get vaccinated say they have some mysterious conscientious objection to being tested for a disease.

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State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, reads her proposed changes to the Health Care Right of Conscience Act on the House floor Wednesday night before the vote to pass the amendment.

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The current topsy-turvy political landscape was on full display in the Illinois House and the Senate last week as the chamber debated and passed a bill to slightly narrow the scope of the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

A bedrock Republican Party principle over the years has been to help shield employers from frivolous lawsuits. But every single Republican voted against a bill in the two chambers that would effectively prevent anyone who is fired or punished after refusing to take regular COVID-19 tests from suing their employer and recovering triple damages, including pain and suffering.

Public school teachers, for example, must now either be vaccinated or submit to regular virus testing, yet several unvaccinated teachers are suing because they do not want to take any tests. A court loss by those districts could be very costly, but some judges are siding with plaintiffs and concluding that a law designed to protect doctors who refuse to perform abortions also applies to people who don’t want to be vaccinated or get tested.

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Democrats are usually all-in on the right of employees to sue, but definitely not in this instance. Like I said, topsy-turvy.

Also, for a year and a half now, Republicans have been demanding that the super-majority legislative Democrats vote on bills related to the pandemic rather than sit idly by while Gov. J.B. Pritzker issues executive orders.

But, when the Democrats finally took up the Health Care Right of Conscience Act legislation last week, folks like Rep. Dan Caulkins (R-Decatur) argued that the General Assembly ought to drop this issue and instead allow the courts to decide whether the HCRCA applies to the current controversy over vaccines and testing.

That makes no sense considering the endless GOP demands that the General Assembly “do something.” But, in reality, that demand for legislative action has mainly been a rhetorical device to allow the Republicans to avoid commenting directly on a range of pandemic topics. Last week’s vote, however, smoked them out.

A monolithic niche

Pretty much all polling shows that the majority of Republican voters oppose things like COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates. So, it’s no surprise that Republican legislators would also be opposed to this change, particularly in a redistricting year when legislators will have new turf to defend and primary opponents can always pop up out of the blue.

What is a tiny bit surprising, though, is that the Republican Party has become so completely monolithic.

The party has for decades in this state included several legislators who were willing to break ranks on things like taxation, labor unions and abortion. But those members have left office, lost primaries to more conservative Republicans, lost general elections to more liberal Democrats or, in the case of folks like Sen. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) who voted for the 2017 tax hike, lurched to the far right. It’s also easier to be unified in the super-minority party, mainly because there is so little pressure or enticement to participate in actual governance. The age of Donald Trump has forced the entire party into a niche, whether party members like it or not. 

Unlike the Republicans, House Democrats were not totally unified on the HCRCA legislation last week. It probably didn’t help that tens of thousands of electronic witness slips were filed in opposition to the bill. 

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Seven House Democrats wound up voting against the measure: Carol Ammons of Urbana, Kelly Burke of Evergreen Park, Anthony Deluca of Chicago Heights, Stephanie Kifowit of Oswego and John D’Amico, Mary Flowers and Fran Hurley of Chicago. Two voted “Present”: Angie Guerrero-Cuellar of Chicago and Rita Mayfield of Waukegan.

In the Senate, six Democrats sided with the opposition: Rachelle Aud Crowe of Glen Carbon, Suzy Glowiak Hilton of Western Springs, Mike Hastings of Frankfort, Patrick Joyce of Essex, Meg Loughran Cappel of Shorewood and Doris Turner of Springfield. Four Democrats didn’t vote: Tom Cullerton of Villa Park, Napoleon Harris of Harvey, and Rob Martwick and Tony Muñoz of Chicago.

That Democratic opposition was enough to bring the final tallies below the threshold needed for an immediate effective date on the legislation, so it won’t take effect until June 1 of next year. But it’s likely the two chambers will vote on it again in January, when it can take effect immediately. In the meantime, the governor’s and attorney general’s offices believe the action was probably enough to stave off the lawsuits. 

All because some folks who won’t get vaccinated say they have some mysterious conscientious objection to being tested for a disease and would sue any employer who claims otherwise.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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