House passes 3 bills on exemptions to opt-out of pandemic rules

Idaho House of Representatives, Nov. 15, 2021

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

The Idaho House of Representatives approved three bills Tuesday that would allow people to receive exemptions to avoid mandatory vaccination and to allow children to avoid face masks in schools. 

House bill 414, sponsored by House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, would add religious exemptions to the Idaho Human Rights Act. That would permit an employee to request a religious or reasonable accommodation from an employer requirement that conflicts with their sincerely-held religious beliefs, practices, or observances.

It also prohibits the government, an employer or any other entity from questioning or requesting additional information from employees who request religious exemptions to an otherwise required medical treatment. 

Moyle argued that another person should not question a sincerely held belief, regardless of what that faith is, to mandate a vaccine or medical treatment. He stressed that it was about religious freedom.

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, adamantly opposed the bill, saying it “cheapens” what religious rights are based on under the Constitution. 

“Recognize the holiness of the right that we are affecting,” Chaney said.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said he knew some businesses were openly denying religious exemption requests that employees made regarding mandatory vaccinations. He felt that was unconstitutional and was concerned about the protection of religious rights. 

“We need to send a very clear message” to businesses, Crane said. 

Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, supported the bill, saying “If we are not here to protect and defend a foundational freedom like religious freedom, what are we here for?”

Rep. Gary Marshall, R-Idaho Falls, was also concerned about the language used to define a religious exemption, and what the long term consequences of that legislation would be. He didn’t want people to use religion “as a mask.”

Marshall said he would vote no, but said “it is not a vote against religious freedom in any way.”

The bill passed 46-24 after a heated debate. 

DeMordaunt brought HB415, regarding exemptions for vaccinations. The bill would add medical, religious, philosophical, and natural immunity exemptions for employees facing mandatory vaccination. Exemptions would be available for pregnant employees as well. The bill would require employers to inform employees of those exemptions.

“Exemptions are a powerful tool for employees to use,” DeMordaunt said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women. Pregnant and recently pregnant people are also more likely to get severely ill with COVID-19 compared with non-pregnant people, according to the CDC.

That bill passed with a 43-24 vote.

Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, brought another bill that focused on mask mandates in schools.  

In the spring, lawmakers directed the decision on whether to close schools to the local school boards, as opposed to health districts or other entities. HB 429 would allow parents to opt out of masks and Plexiglass enclosure requirements from schools and school boards. It would also prevent schools from discriminating against the unmasked student, or separating them from activities and programs.

Under the bill, mask exemptions could be granted to parents for “medical, religious, or personal belief reasons.”

House Education Committee Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, expressed concern that the bill would take away power from the school boards.  

Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, brought up issues that some students, such as those with autism or speech difficulties, have with masks.

Nate questioned if schools were sending home students who don’t wear masks because schools recently changed their funding formula from student attendance to student enrollment. That change came when some students switched to at-home learning during the height of the pandemic. 

Rep. Matt Bundy, R-Mountain Home, who teaches at a public school, said if a student is sent home, it is not because of the funding formula. 

Bundy said if a child is out sick with COVID or another illness, they are still responsible for their education. He said he trusts the teachers and he trusts the school board. 

“We take our jobs seriously,” said Bundy, who opposed the legislation.

Those bills now head to the Senate, along with HB 415, HB 419, HB415, HB 412, HB 417. It isn’t yet clear if the Senate will hear all legislation passed by the House.

The Senate State Affairs Committee meets at 8 a.m. Wednesday.

<strong>Ruth Brown</strong> | Producer
Ruth Brown | Producer

Ruth Brown grew up in South Dakota and her first job out of college was covering the South Dakota Legislature. She’s since moved on to Idaho lawmakers. Brown spent 10 years working in print journalism, including newspapers such as the Idaho Statesman and Idaho Press, where she’s covered everything from the correctional system to health care issues. She joined Idaho Reports in 2021 and looks forward to telling stories about how state policy can impact the lives of regular Idahoans.

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