JB Pritzker

Did Illinois Change Religious Exemptions for Vaccines? Here's What Happened

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed into law a change that would allow those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine to potentially face repercussions

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What exactly does the change to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act mean for residents?

Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday signed into law a change that would allow those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine to potentially face repercussions, but despite what he said was misinformation surrounding the law, the change does not alter residents' ability to obtain a religious exemption.

The governor said the change clarifies the current wording in the act "so that it cannot be abused or misinterpreted to jeopardize workplace safety," but still "explicitly reiterates federal protections of sincerely held religious objections."

The law was adopted in 1978 to protect physicians from penalty or discipline for refusing to perform abortions because of a religious or moral objection. Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul asked Pritzker to encourage legislation to make clear the law was not intended to cover a contagious and deadly pandemic.

“Masks, vaccines, and testing requirements are life-saving measures that keep our workplaces and communities safe,” said Pritzker, who thanked lawmakers for ensuring the law “is no longer wrongly used against institutions who are putting safety and science first.”

Lawsuits have been filed by employees claiming they cannot be punished for refusing the shot because the law provides a conscience-based exemption. Some workers have even claimed exemptions from taking preventive steps such as wearing face coverings or testing for a coronavirus infection.

Language was inserted into the bill stating that it is not a violation of the law to “take any measure or impose any requirements intended to prevent contraction or transmission or COVID-19.”

Individuals’ employment can be terminated, or individuals can be excluded from schools or places of employment if they fail to adhere to company mandates under provisions of the bill.

Exemptions are being allowed under the Civil Rights Act around the country. Two key cases invoking the U.S. Constitution's Free Exercise of Religion clause are proceeding in Maine and New York. Both could be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bill will go into effect on June 1, 2022. It passed the Illinois House by a 64-52 margin, with two legislators voting “present,” and passed the Senate 31-24, sending the measure to Pritzker’s desk.

The votes were split mostly along party lines, with Democrats largely supporting the measure.

“Despite deliberate attempts to misinform the public, nothing about this law takes away anyone’s rights to claim religious or medical exemption, which are protected by federal law,” House Speaker Chris Welch said. “While only a small minority of people are skirting COVID-19 requirements, our goal is to make sure workers in high-risk environments are doing what’s needed to fulfill their responsibility to public health and keep everyone alive and healthy.”

Republicans criticized the bill as an overreach by Pritzker and Democrats.

“Senate Bill 1169 is a direct assault on an individuals’ right to make healthcare decisions for themselves,” State Sen. Jason Plummer said in a statement. “The governor can’t stand the fact that the people of Illinois have had enough of his mandates, and are standing up for their rights.”

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