Iowa bill defining medical and religious vaccine exemptions moves to House floor

The bill will grant exemptions for employee vaccine requirements and expand state unemployment compensation eligibility.


Shivansh Ahuja

Syringes for the COVID-19 vaccine lay on a counter at the VA Medical Center in Iowa City on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. The center received the Moderna vaccine for its employees.

Lauren White, Politics Reporter

The Iowa House State Government Committee introduced a bill that defines medical and religious COVID-19 vaccine exemption and makes those fired from work for not complying with vaccine mandates eligible for unemployment benefits. 

The bill allows anyone to claim a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine, and it doesn’t include requirements that medical exemptions be granted by a medical professional.

The bill was introduced on Thursday as legislators convened for a special session to vote on redistricting maps.  

While discussing the bill in the State Government Committee meeting Rep. Henry Stone, R-Winnebago, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill will prevent Iowa businesses from choosing between following federal law and state law. 

So to speak to the mandate of having COVID vaccine requirements, a business can still do that. All this bill states is that you can have that mandate, but now you are going to accept the exemptions and the waivers,” Stone said. 

In a September Iowa Poll, 52 percent of respondents said that the federal government should not force employers to require COVID-19 vaccines. President Joe Biden has announced plans for a mandate for federal contractors, and a requirement that employees of businesses with more than 100 employees be vaccinated or tested weekly. 

RELATED: Iowa Republicans blast Biden’s vaccine mandate

House Study Bill 281, states that any employer who requires their employees be vaccinated shall waive the requirement if the employee officially states that they cannot receive the vaccine due to their own health or well-being, or because of religious practices. 

Later in the day, the Senate Commerce Committee passed Senate Study Bill 1280, a bill with the same text.

Employees who are fired for refusing the vaccine on bases that are not medical or religious will be eligible for state unemployment benefits and will not face any further penalties. 

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said every attorney he has spoken to in his and surrounding districts have never been made aware of a prohibition of how states can or cannot accept a religious or medical exemption. 

“I dare the federal government to come after religious exemptions. They will lose,” Kaufmann said. 

The bill as written would expand the scope of unemployment compensation eligibility in the state by giving independent contractors, as well as other employees, the opportunity to claim unemployment benefits. 

Due to this expansion, Rep. Mary Mascher, D-Iowa City, said she will be filing a fiscal note, because she said it is important for the committee and Iowa businesses to understand the economic impact of the bill. She said that compensation funds may be depleted with the expansion and it will be felt by everyone who contributes to the fund. 

“We have a responsibility to the people of the state of Iowa to know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and to justify it both fiscally and obviously what’s in the best interest of the health and well being of all Iowans,” Mascher said. 

The bill advanced out of committee 16-7 and moved to the House floor where it will be debated.