Liberty for Whom?

A debate over “vaccine mandate bans”—whether a government can or should ban people in its jurisdiction from requiring proof of vaccination in private interactions with one another—looks at first glance like such a tertiary COVID-related issue as to be hardly worth bothering about. At the moment, however, it’s a debate causing an internal rift among South Dakota Republicans—one that’s an interesting illustration of the ideological civil war currently roiling the GOP at large.

The debate over vaccine mandates has been raging for months, but it has heated up in Gov. Kristi Noem’s backyard in recent months. South Dakota’s largest employer is Sanford Health, a hospital and health care system that employs nearly 10,000 people in the eastern half of the state. On July 22, Sanford, which operates in both Dakotas and Minnesota, announced it would begin requiring all its employees to get vaccinated for COVID by November 1.

Within weeks, two Republican members of the state House, Reps. Jon Hansen and Scott Odenbach, had introduced legislation punching back. The COVID-19 Vaccine Freedom of Conscience Act would give South Dakotans “the right to be exempt from any COVID-19 vaccination mandate, requirement, obligation, or demand on the basis that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination violates his or her conscience.” Just about any way in which a person might be personally inconvenienced by refusing a vaccine (other than contracting the disease) is summarily forbidden: “No person shall be subjected to any disciplinary action; being terminated, demoted, or losing employment status in any way; loss of student status, including status in a particular study program; nor shall any person be denied access to any business premises as a result of his or her decision to decline to receive a COVID-19 vaccination on the basis of conscience.”

By the end of August, state House Speaker Spencer Gosch had come aboard the mandate ban effort as well. The bill he introduced would deem a person’s COVID vaccination status “strictly confidential medical information,” and would make it a misdemeanor to require anyone to disclose that information.

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