HELENA – The Montana Senate voted Thursday to advance a measure banning the use of vaccine passports and prohibiting workplaces from requiring vaccinations as a condition for employment.
Dozens of supporters of the measure, mostly unmasked, packed the Senate gallery. They erupted into cheers and applause when the Senate voted to advance the measure 30-19, largely along party lines with Republicans in favor.
The vote came after Benefis Health System, a health care provider in Great Falls, announced earlier this month it would require all its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which has received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
A similar bill failed in the House earlier this year, only to be revived by Republican lawmakers who insist that rules requiring vaccines as a condition for employment or access to services pose a health risk and a threat to religious freedom and privacy.
“This bill is about us giving people a choice so that they don’t have to be terminated from their employment and so they can maintain their sincerely held personal religious beliefs,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, the Republican who carried the bill on the Senate floor.
Opponents of the measure say the bill could negatively impact medically vulnerable residents of nursing homes and assisted care living facilities, where staff would no longer be required to receive vaccines widely believed to be safe, including the annual flu shot.
The bill comes a week after Montana’s Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte banned the use of vaccine passports in the state to prove COVID-19 vaccination status by executive order.
Vaccine passports are documents that can be used to verify coronavirus immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine. The White House has said there will not be any federal vaccine passport program, leaving the development of such initiatives to private companies.
The Senate amended the bill Thursday to clarify that the change does not apply to vaccine requirement for public school students. According to existing law, students are required to receive certain vaccines but may opt out if their parents or guardians sign a religious or medical waiver.
The Senate must vote on the bill for a final time before it returns to the House for approval.
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