CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A controversial bill banning some vaccine mandates in South Carolina passed the House of Representatives after several hours of debate Thursday.
H.3126, sponsored by more than 30 Republicans, passed in a 67-31 vote largely along party lines and now heads to the Senate, where leaders have said they are unlikely return to Columbia until they reconvene for the start of their regular legislative session in January.
The bill bans state and local governments, including school districts, from imposing COVID-19 vaccine mandates on employees, contractors, and students as a condition of employment or attendance.
It also prohibits these entities from firing unvaccinated first responders paid with public funds — defined as law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics.
“We cannot take the chance on losing another 20% of our first responders because of a vaccination mandate,” Rep. Chris Wooten, R – Lexington, said during floor debate over the bill.
The bill states religious and medical exemptions — including the presence of antibodies, an earlier positive COVID-19 test result, and pregnancy — “must be honored in regards to any COVID-19 vaccine requirement.”
“It’s a question of freedom. It’s a question of if anyone should be able to make you inject something into your body without your own will,” Rep. Stewart Jones, R – Laurens and the bill’s lead sponsor, said.
The most debated section of the bill was cut in an amendment at the tail end of nearly seven hours of debate, with more than a dozen Democrats taking the microphone to argue against the bill.
That portion, left out of the final version of the bill that passed the House, would have banned private businesses from firing or suspending unvaccinated workers. Some Democrats argued the language of that section opened up businesses and potentially the state to lawsuits.
“Why are we more concerned with people that don’t want to get vaccinated than we are with people who have built this state?” House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D – Richland, asked Jones during debate.
Shortly after, Rep. Russell Ott, D – Calhoun, characterized the bill as “a complete assault on our business industry and our businesses in the state of South Carolina.”
In place of the section concerning private businesses’ authority to fire unvaccinated workers, Republicans swapped in a section that makes people eligible for unemployment benefits if they are fired or suspended from a job at a private company for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
The bill does allow private companies subject to federal vaccine mandates to require unvaccinated employees be tested weekly for COVID, and it would allocate $10 million each to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Medical University of South Carolina to facilitate that testing.
If the Senate passes the bill, it would move to the desk of Gov. Henry McMaster for his signature.
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