A panel of South Carolina lawmakers advanced a proposal Tuesday to ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates for state and local government employees, contractors and public school students.
The bill considered by a House Ways and Means subcommittee would effectively make such vaccine mandates illegal for public state or local employees, contractors and first responders. Under the proposal, school districts would not be able to require students to get the shots either.
The drafted bill would also bar private companies from suspending or firing employees who do not get the vaccine, though it does allow for those employers to require weekly testing to abide by any federal mandates. The legislation would offset costs for those employers by giving $10 million to the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Medical University of South Carolina to conduct weekly tests.
"Ultimately, this issue comes down to liberty. It comes down to freedom," said Rep. Stewart Jones, a Republican from Laurens who is a sponsor of the bill. Jones was also the lawmaker who proposed an effective ban on mask mandates in public schools earlier this year that was later challenged in court.
About 50% of all South Carolinians ages 5 and older have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations, according to data from the state health department. Nationwide, about 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated against the disease.
Before voting on the measure, lawmakers heard from only a few speakers, among them a city of Charleston firefighter, a nurse and a lawyer, all of whom objected to measures their employers have taken to require workers get inoculated against the highly contagious virus.
The legislative effort comes as federal vaccine mandates by the Biden administration affecting the private sector are being held up in courts across the country.
The House expects to bypass its typical rules and take up the bill at Thursday's special session just hours after it is expected to pass the full Ways and Means Committee.
Even if the House OK's the proposal, senators said Tuesday they have no plans to return to the Statehouse before the 2022 regular session starts Jan. 11.