Greg Abbott’s ban on COVID-19 vaccine mandates is making its way through the Texas Legislature

The House measure focuses on giving employees fired for refusing a vaccine the right to sue their former employers, while the Senate bill hews closer to Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order.

FILE - In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a person was injected with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I.
AP Photo/David Goldman, File
In this Dec. 15, 2020, file photo, a droplet falls from a syringe after a person was injected with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a hospital in Providence, R.I.

The Texas Legislature is scrambling to address Gov. Greg Abbott's demand for a bill that would ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates for both public and private entities, formalizing an executive order issued earlier this week.

The movement comes with less than one week remaining in the third special session, raising the chances that the governor will call a fourth special session if the work isn't completed by next Wednesday.

Each chamber is working on different approaches to the governor's demand. Senate Bill 51 takes a broad approach, in line with the governor's executive order. It would bar local governments, elementary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, and private employers from enacting COVID-19 mandates. It would also make it illegal for private employers or labor organizations to refuse to hire people because they are not vaccinated.

House Bill 155 focuses narrowly on providing personal exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates for employees at private businesses, and would allow some employees who are fired for refusing to get vaccinated to sue a former employer.

It allows employees to opt out of vaccine mandates for legitimate medical reasons, for objections of personal conscience, or if they have “acquired immunity” to COVID-19 after recovering from a previous bout of the illness.

While it is true that people who were previously infected with COVID-19 do have some natural antibodies, unvaccinated people are more than twice as likely to get sick again with COVID-19 than those who were fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, filed HB 155 several days before the governor issued his executive order, and added the mandate ban to the call for the third special session.

The House gave his bill its first reading earlier this week, and the House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on the bill Wednesday.

Oliverson is an anesthesiologist by training. He told the committee that he himself had gotten the vaccine as soon as it was available, both because of his non-legislative profession and because, as someone with a history of asthma, he was at high risk if he contracted COVID-19.

But he emphasized that he believed it was important for everyone to make their own personal choice on getting vaccinated.

"One of the things I believe very strongly in as a physician, and I think is a cornerstone and a bedrock of the way we practice medicine in this country — it is foundational to medical ethics — is the idea of patient autonomy," Oliverson said. "And that is the idea that a patient of sound mind and body has the right to accept or refuse medical advice and treatment. Whether the literature shows that that might be beneficial to them or not, it is their decision. It's not your decision. It's not my decision. It's not the state's decision."

Oliverson's argument resonated with Republicans on the House state affairs committee. State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, noted that he lost his father to COVID-19, that his daughter had been severely infected, and that he himself had recovered from the disease.

“If the reason for getting a vaccine is to get antibodies, and I've already got antibodies, why go do that?” King asked. "And I'm not against vaccines. I got the flu vaccine this week, and I have every year for as long as I can recall.”

HB 155 has hit strong opposition from some business groups, including the National Federation of Independent Business, an advocacy group representing small employers. NFIB state director Annie Spilman released a statement expressing concern that the bill could lead to a rash of lawsuits against small business owners.

“Our small business members are struggling with the labor shortage and disruptions in the supply chain caused by the pandemic,” Spilman said. “The last thing they need right now is the added cost and distraction of unnecessary legal actions.”

That was a message taken up by several Democrats on the committee. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, a small business owner himself, noted that Republicans typically argue against restrictions on small businesses. Earlier this year, Abbott signed into law a GOP-backed measure to protect businesses from lawsuits related to COVID-19 exposure.

“There's merit to having this conversation about state agencies, schools that are run with tax dollars. But a private business, and taking away their freedom and ability to run their business for what is best for them?” Lucio said. “Frankly, a lot of folks on your side of the aisle have made that their cornerstone issue. I'm surprised that that is changing a little bit depending on the temperature of politics at the time.”

The House State Affairs Committee took more than four hours of testimony on HB 155 Wednesday, then left the bill pending.

On the other side of the Capitol, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, is the author of SB 51. The bill, filed earlier this week by Hughes, had its first hearing in the Senate state affairs committee Thursday afternoon.

Hughes himself chairs that committee, making its passage to the floor of the Senate a virtual certainty.

During Thursday’s Senate state affairs committee meeting, Hughes said “a clash of rights” made legislative intervention necessary.

"We all recognize that employers and businesses have the right to run their businesses as they see fit. We also recognize that individuals have rights to make those important medical decisions,” he said. “When those rights clash, as they do here, then it's appropriate for the people, working through the Legislature, to get involved."