By a narrow two-vote margin, the Wyoming House of Representatives has advanced legislation that would prohibit hospitals, businesses, schools and any other facility in the state from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations and other related health requirements such as the wearing of face masks.
Although the bill titled “Prohibiting Mask, Vaccine and Testing Discrimination”may put Wyoming at risk of losing an estimated $850 million in federal Medicaid funding, bill sponsor Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, isn’t dissuaded.
“We must make a choice between their dollars and our freedom,” she said from the House floor last week. “But will we sacrifice our freedom for their money? I hope not.”
Most of the debate on House Bill 66 centered on balancing individual rights with respecting the health choices of others.
“Requiring masks, vaccines and testing to work, get an education or be seen by a doctor is a form of discrimination that should be illegal,” Ward said.
Not A Burden, But A Gift
Rep. Jerry Obermuller, R-Casper, had a different perspective. He told the story of standing in line as a child to receive a smallpox inoculation. To comfort him, his father, a pastor, told him the vaccine was a gift from God.
“He said, ‘It’s our patriotic duty to care for our neighbor,’” Obermuller said.
The original version of HB 66 contained language prohibiting all mandatory vaccines, which would apply to more historically proven inoculations for diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.
Ward voluntarily removed this part of the bill in an amendment when it passed through committee last week. Another amendment passed at that stage removed all criminal penalties from the bill.
Ward added an amendment Thursday that includes civil penalties up to $5,000 for those who violate the bill.
The hefty fine was criticized by Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne.
“Now we have civil court cases,” he said. “Now we’re going to have to figure out how all these attorneys make lots and lots of money off of civil court cases because that’s the only way to enforce this.”
On Friday, Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, passed an amendment to the bill adding criminal penalties back in.
Oakley, an attorney, argued a civil penalty wouldn’t be applicable to the law and that lawmakers needed to have “courage of our convictions.”
Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, another attorney, agreed.
“What we’re saying with this amendment is you either believe in this idea or you don’t,” Crago said. “We should believe in the legislation that we’re passing and make them have teeth.”
Ward said the amendment was made as an effort to kill the bill.
“I want to be clear the chess game that’s being played here,” she said. “The point in moving to a civil penalty is to provide some kind of redress for the wronged person so that they can at least get some kind of help for being wronged and having their personal liberties being taken away.
“What is being attempted here with this amendment is to make it unpalatable to the body so it will not pass in its entirety.”
The amendment passed 34-23.
Been Here Before
In many ways, Thursday’s discussion was a more condensed version of a 2021 special session held to address Wyoming’s COVID-19 regulations.
“This is not a new issue for us,” Speaker Pro Tem Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, told Cowboy State Daily after voting against HB 66. “We have debated this measure before – and we will continue to debate it – there are two more readings left.”
The bill will receive two more considerations before it can move to the Senate for consideration.
During the debate, many members questioned the conclusions made by the medical establishment.
Rep. Ken Pendergraft, R-Sheridan, referred to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention stance that wearing face masks prevents the spread of the virus as a “lie” and a “fantasy.”
Rep. Sarah Penn, R-Riverton, said that while she may have lost a family member to COVID, she also questioned the validity of this medical determination.
Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, said he lost a previously healthy friend who died shortly after receiving a vaccine.
“The health care sector has done more to destroy the trust of the American people more than any other sector,” Ward said.
Discriminates Over Personal Choice
One of the key motivations behind Ward’s bill is that she finds requirements for vaccines and other health measures to be discriminatory against those who choose not to abide by them.
Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, spoke in favor of the bill, saying he believes new classes of society were created by the alleged discrimination that’s emerged since the beginning of the pandemic.
“It created a new class of citizen – a class restricted from going places to eat, restricted of travel, a class of citizen that couldn’t enter government buildings,” Knapp said.
Expects Some Votes To Change
Stith said he was encouraged by the quality of the debate on House Bill 66, which passed on a 31-29 vote.
He said he feels confident enough votes will change to defeat it when it becomes more clear what the ramifications will be for Wyoming if it passes.
“We must allow the private sector, hospitals, etc. to make their own decisions about requiring employees, customers or patients to wear masks or be vaccinated against COVID-19,” Stith said.