CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A bill to limit West Virginia employers in their ability to require workers to be vaccinated against the coronavirus passed the House of Delegates on Friday.

The proposal, which would allow certain medical and religious exemptions to company COVID-19 vaccine mandates, passed the Republican-led chamber 68-30 with two delegates absent. It remains pending in the Senate.

The bill covers businesses and state government agencies. Employers would be barred from penalizing or discriminating against current or prospective employees for pursuing the exemptions.

Gov. Jim Justice added the bill to the Legislature’s special session this week.

Justice, a Republican, lifted an earlier indoor mask mandate in June. While he has been adamant that residents get their COVID-19 shots in a state whose population has the lowest vaccination rate in the country, he opposes any new mask or vaccine mandates.

Speaking about the bill at a regular news conference on the pandemic Friday, Justice said, “I don’t believe that really and truly we should just throw our freedoms and our rights in a trash can.”

Dozen of businesses, including hospitals, banks and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, have told lawmakers they are strongly opposed to the bill.

The West Virginia University Health System, the state’s largest private employer, is requiring its more than 20,000 employees to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 31. And a Nov. 6 deadline looms for nearly 8,000 employees of Charleston Area Medical Center to provide COVID-19 vaccine documentation.

Under the bill, a doctor or nurse can provide signed documentation that the employee has a physical condition preventing them from safely receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, or the worker has recovered from COVID-19 and can show they have antibodies for the virus. The worker also can present to their employer a notarized certification for a religious exemption.

“I’m here because I believe in personal choice and personal freedom,” said Raleigh County Republican Brandon Steele, chairman of the House government organization committee.

Holding his COVID-19 vaccine card, Steele said, “it’s about being free to work your job, to raise your family, and not be subject to somebody walking up to you and saying, ‘where’s your papers?’ That’s not the America I want to live in. The America I want to live in, I could drop this card right in the trash.

“And if my employer wants to require something, fine. You can still require it. But you’re going to recognize these exemptions. They’re legitimate and they exist.”

Kanawha County Democrat Doug Skaff, who owns several businesses, said the bill tells employers how to do their jobs.

“We want to make this a business-friendly state,” Skaff said. “Get government out of the way and let us run our business. This bill does the opposite.”

Many other states are considering anti-mandate bills. GOP Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order to prohibit any entity, including private business, from enforcing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on workers.

More than 4,100 people have died from the virus in West Virginia since the start of the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia, Idaho and Wyoming have the lowest percentage of residents who are not fully vaccinated.

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