Virginia House panel rejects proposal to allow religious COVID-19 vaccine exemption

Coronavirus

In this screen grab from video issued by Britain’s Oxford University, a volunteer is injected with either an experimental COVID-19 vaccine or a comparison shot as part of the first human trials in the U.K. to test a potential vaccine, led by Oxford University in England on April 25, 2020. About 100 research groups around the world are pursuing vaccines against the coronavirus, with nearly a dozen in early stages of human trials or poised to start. (University of Oxford via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia House panel rejected legislation Tuesday allowing people to cite religious reasons for not wanting to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it’s available and that would have stripped Dr. Norman Oliver, the state’s commissioner of health, of his authority to mandate vaccines amid a public health epidemic.

Requiring vaccinations against the coronavirus drew significant attention after Oliver told WFXR News’ Jackie Defusco that he would mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for state residents, a statement that prompted Gov. Ralph Northam’s office to say that there are no plans to mandate a potential vaccine.

“When Dr. Oliver spoke of his support of a mandatory COVID-19 vaccine for adults, he was sharing his personal opinion as a physician,” Maria Reppas, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health, said. “Currently, the Northam administration has taken no official policy position on whether or not a COVID-19 vaccine for adults should be mandatory. VDH regrets this error.”

The Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, which is now led by Democrats after the party seized control of the state legislature in November, halted proposals by Republicans to eliminate Oliver’s power to mandate a vaccine for the novel coronavirus and create vaccine exemptions.

A bill from Mark L. Cole (R-Spotsylvania) would have added a religious exemption to the state law that gives Virginia’s health commissioner the power to immediately require vaccines in case of an epidemic, such as the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, the law only allows exemptions for medical reasons. The committee narrowly voted down the measure Tuesday with an 11-10 vote.

Legislation introduced by Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun), similar to Cole’s bill, also aimed to prevent Virginia’s Board of Health from using its authority to declare an emergency in order to require students to be vaccinated if they object on religious grounds.

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