Move to bar moral exemptions for refusing COVID-19 vaccine sparks concerns, obscenities, threats

Move to bar moral exemptions for refusing COVID-19 vaccine sparks concerns, obscenities, threats

Municipal workers hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in New York on Monday. | Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Lawmakers serving on the House’s Executive Committee engaged in a heated back and forth during the hearing on the proposed amendment to the 1998 Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

Nearly 50,000 people have logged their opposition to a proposal to bar employees from citing their moral beliefs as a reason for refusing to comply with a workplace COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The sponsor of the measure said she’s received a “gazillion” responses — some obscene, some threatening, some “kind of terrifying.”

One man even threatened sexual violence, warning that Gov. J.B. Pritzker and “each and every State Legislator” who supports the measure would suffer “Rape by Needle.”

That was just one measure that advanced out of a General Assembly committee Tuesday when legislators returned to Springfield for the second week of their fall veto session.

Lawmakers serving on the House’s Executive Committee — as well as representatives from the governor’s office and the office of Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul — engaged in a heated back and forth during the hearing on the proposed amendment to the 1998 Health Care Right of Conscience Act.

That amendment, sponsored by state Rep. Robyn Gabel, is intended to make clear that public officials and private companies can impose COVID-19 requirements as a condition of employment — and fire those who refuse to comply.

Her amendment would still allow for exemptions based on religion and health concerns. Gabel said she’s spoken to Pritzker’s office and legislative leaders about potentially amending the language to make that clearer, although “we think the language is pretty clear, and we’re doing everything we can to let people know.”

State Rep. Robyn Gabel, left, and state Rep. Robert Rita, right, participate in a House Executive Committee hearing over Zoom on Tuesday. Blue Room Stream
State Rep. Robyn Gabel, left, and state Rep. Robert Rita, right, participate in a House Executive Committee hearing over Zoom on Tuesday.

The Evanston Democrat said she isn’t trying to change the intent of the original law, but to “clarify that the manner in which the Health Care Right of Conscience Act is being used with respect to pandemic reasons was never intended when the act was originally created.”

The act was originally designed to protect doctors, nurses and other health care providers who refused to perform medical procedures — such as abortions — that they’re opposed to. But state officials say the act needs clarification because Illinoisans are using it to refuse to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Tens of thousands of Illinoisans indicated they want it left alone.

By Tuesday evening, 49,598 people filed witness slips opposing the clarification measure on the General Assembly website, while another 680 filed slips to register their support for changing it. Another 490 filed slips taking no position.

State Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, said the response reflects that he is hearing from people.

“I mean, how many times do we get a bill that has 45,000 witness slips attached to it? Virtually never.

State Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, asks questions during a House Executive Committee hearing over Zoom on Tuesday. Blue Room Stream
State Rep. Keith Wheeler, R-Oswego, asks questions during a House Executive Committee hearing over Zoom on Tuesday.

“This bill has touched a nerve because so many are concerned that they are losing their opportunity to exercise their own conscience about their bodies, about their health, about their families,” Wheeler said, adding the committee is doing “nothing … to alleviate any of those concerns.”

Other Republicans objected that the amendment was too broad and infringed on people’s right to make their own decisions.

“You are forcing people to do something against their will — forcing them to take a vaccine against their will because it makes some people feel more comfortable,” state Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, told the committee. “This is their life.”

State Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, speaks during a House Executive Committee hearing over Zoom on Tuesday. Blue Room Stream
State Rep. C.D. Davidsmeyer, R-Jacksonville, speaks during a House Executive Committee hearing over Zoom on Tuesday.

The House committee also heard from others, including Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, who said “we’re concerned that if you restrict conscience rights for COVID Well, what’s next? … Power given to the government is seldom returned.”

Gabel told the Sun-Times she’s received a “gazillion” comments ranging from calls from people swearing at her or telling her to “go f—” herself or other rude comments to threat, since filing the amendment Monday.

While she has a history of carrying controversial bills, Gabel said she’s never “received these kinds of threats before.”

State Rep. Robyn Gabel meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2018. Rich Hein/Sun-Times file
State Rep. Robyn Gabel meets with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2018.

That includes one she received from a man on social media who said if the measure passes, the citizens of Illinois “will be waiting to give you, the Governor, and each and every State Legislator that voted to pass the amended law a medical procedure against your own consent.”

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander right?” the man wrote. “You are pushing for Rape by Needle.”

Gabel said the threats and calls are “kind of terrifying.” She blamed an “organized effort to spread this misinformation.”

“Sometimes people forget the context of this whole bill and what we’re talking about, and I really want people to understand that we are still very much in a deadly pandemic, and that a small minority of people should not be allowed to utilize a loophole that was never intended to stifle efforts to combat a global pandemic,” Gabel said.

Despite the division, the measure passed out of committee nine to six and advances to the House floor.

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