Arkansas lawmakers advance legislation intended to reinstate a ban on covid-19 vaccine mandates for public entities

Legislators advance measure to replace expired 2021 act

State Rep. Howard Beaty Jr., R-Crossett, walks to the well of the state House to present House Bill 1002, which would reinstate a ban on state and local government covid-19 vaccine mandates, at the state Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas House of Representatives on Wednesday handily approved a bill intended to reinstate a ban on covid-19 vaccine mandates for public entities.

House Bill 1002, sponsored by Rep. Howard Beaty, R-Crossett, passed 83-14 and moved to the Senate for further action. Later Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor endorsed the bill, sending it to the full Senate.

Shortly after the House vote, the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor approved an identical Senate bill in a voice vote with some audible dissent. Senate Bill 3, by Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, moves to the full House for further consideration.

"We as the leaders of this state need to send a message to the employees of this state that we will not mandate a coronavirus vaccination for them," Beaty said when presenting his bill in the House.

In her written call for the special session, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the "rights and privileges of Arkansas citizens should not depend on their decision to vaccinate themselves or their children."

House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough of Little Rock spoke against HB 1002 in the House, saying lawmakers "should not be in the business of determining health care decisions for individual Arkansans."

"My fear is this bill will lead Arkansans to believe that the science behind the vaccine is faulty and therefore decide against receiving a simple, safe and effective shot that could very well save their life," she said. "The pandemic is over but the virus is still with us."

Under the proposed bills, state and local government officials would be barred from mandating or requiring an individual to receive a vaccine or immunization for covid-19. Officials also would be prohibited from requiring a person to receive a vaccine as a condition of education, employment, entry or services from the state or a state agency or entity, or for obtaining a licensure, certificate or permit from a state agency or entity.

The bills would create a similar mandate ban to one included in Act 977 of 2021, which expired in August. The proposed legislation goes further than the 2021 act by covering vaccines for any subvariants of the virus in addition to covid-19 vaccines.

Unlike Act 977, the bills do not include an expiration date. Beaty has noted the legislation allows state and local entities to seek exemptions to the mandate ban while the 2021 act only allowed "a state-owned or state-controlled medical facility" to request an exemption from the Arkansas Legislative Council.

Lawmakers granted exemptions to at least three state agencies while the 2021 law was active.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services, the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences were each permitted to implement covid-19 vaccination requirements, with religious and medical exemptions, for employees in facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Another provision in SB 3 and HB 1002 would require the Arkansas Department of Health to maintain information and data on "any potential risks and harms associated with the administration of the vaccine or immunization" for covid-19 or subvariants of the virus and make the information and data publicly available.

State and local officials are also barred from coercing individuals to receive covid-19 vaccinations or discriminating against individuals who have not received a shot under the bills.