Arkansas lawmakers advance bills barring covid-19 vaccination mandates

Arkansas Senate approves measure, moves to House

Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, speaks about Senate Bill 3 regarding COVID vaccine mandates during a session in the Senate at the Arkansas state Capitol on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

A bill intended to extend a ban on covid-19 vaccine mandates for public entities ranging from schools to state agencies sailed through the Arkansas Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, passed with a vote of 27-3 and moves to the House for further action.

Bryant has said the bill is needed to reinstate a mandate ban originally included in Act 977 of 2021, which he said expired in August.

Under SB 3, state and local government officials would be barred from mandating or requiring an individual to receive a vaccine or immunization for covid-19. Officials also would be prohibited from requiring a person to receive a vaccine as a condition of education, employment, entry or services from the state or a state agency or entity, or for obtaining a licensure, certificate or permit from a state agency or entity.

The proposed legislation goes further than the 2021 act by covering vaccines for any subvariants of the virus in addition to covid-19 vaccines.

The Arkansas House Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor on Tuesday advanced a bill that mirrors SB 3 to the full House for approval. House Bill 1002, sponsored by Rep. Howard Beaty, R-Crossett, passed the committee in a voice vote with some audible dissent.

"This act strikes a balance between public health considerations and the right to individual autonomy," Beaty said during the committee meeting.

The proposed legislation would apply to all state entities, including community colleges and four-year universities, but would not affect private institutions, Beaty said.

Unlike Act 977, bills do not include an expiration date. Beaty noted the legislation allows state and local entities to seek exemptions to the mandate ban while the 2021 act only allowed "a state-owned or state-controlled medical facility" to request an exemption from the Arkansas Legislative Council.

[DOCUMENT: Read Senate Bill 3 »]

While Act 977 was in effect, lawmakers granted exemptions to at least three state agencies.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services, the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences were each permitted to implement covid-19 vaccination requirements, with religious and medical exemptions, for employees in facilities that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Beaty also noted the proposed legislation differs from Act 977 in that it doesn't include a provision stating that a "state-owned or state-controlled medical facility may offer positive incentives to an individual to receive a vaccine or immunization" from covid-19.

"This bill leaves that out. It doesn't prevent it or exclude it. It just doesn't specifically state that that's an option," said Beaty.

Another provision in SB 3 and HB 1002 would require the Arkansas Department of Health to maintain information and data on "any potential risks and harms associated with the administration of the vaccine or immunization" for covid-19 or subvariants of the virus and make the information and data publicly available.

In response to questions, Matt Gilmore, with the Arkansas Department of Health, told the House committee he did not have data on hand about reported adverse effects from covid-19 vaccines in the state.

"At this point, I don't have specific numbers that we could tie directly to a death," he said.

State and local officials are also barred from coercing individuals to receive covid-19 vaccinations or discriminating against individuals who have not received a shot under the bills.