HELENA — On a party-line vote with Republicans in favor, the state Senate Thursday advanced a bill that forbids businesses or the government from making vaccinations a condition of employment or receiving services.
“This is the camel’s nose under the tent, the foot in the door,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, arguing for the bill. “This is the opportunity to not just have vaccine status on a passport, but your religious preference, your political identity, what you believe, what you think.”
The Senate endorsed House Bill 702 on a 31-19 vote, setting up a final vote in the coming days and then another vote in the House before the measure would be sent to Gov. Greg Gianforte for his signature.
Upon the vote, the Senate gallery packed with supporters of the bill erupted in applause, prompting the Senate’s chair, Sen. Carl Glimm of Kalispell, to bang his gavel several times and call for order. Glimm voted for the bill.
The bill says no person or government can refuse services, goods, educational opportunities, health-care access or employment to anyone based on their vaccination status.
It also says businesses cannot make vaccination status a condition of employment, or discriminate against employees in any way because they’ve refused to get a vaccine.
However, the Senate did attach an amendment that says schools and day-care centers can still impose vaccination requirements for students.
The bill comes on top of an executive order last week by Gianforte, prohibiting “vaccine passports” in Montana and prohibiting businesses from requiring customers to show they’ve been vaccinated before serving them.
But Gianforte’s order exempted hospitals, day-care centers, and long-term care facilities.
Opponents of HB702 said it may run afoul of federal regulations for nursing homes, assisted-living facilities or other institutions that house vulnerable people – as well as prevent them from doing what they need to do to keep their residents safe.
Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, said Covid-19 has killed 560,000 Americans and 3 million people worldwide.
“To protect each other and Montanans, and our most vulnerable citizens, (this bill) is not going to do anything to help us out, and I hope we vote it down,” she said.
Yet supporters said it’s an issue of personal freedom. Many people have medical or religious reasons to refuse vaccines, and shouldn’t be penalized for those beliefs, they said.
McGillvray said a hospital in north-central Montana is requiring employees to get vaccinated unless they can prove they have a medical or religious exemption – and, when they cite a religious exemption, they are asked to provide “documentation.”
“That’s not a religious exemption; it’s an inquisition,” he said. “This is what we used to do in the 1600s in the witch hunts. …
“Right now, in the gallery, we have nurses, hospice care workers and more that are being threatened that if they don’t get vaccinated in the next week, they will be fired.”
The Senate is expected to consider yet another vaccination bill as soon as Friday, imposing other prohibitions or requirements for the use of vaccine information.