With Pritzker’s vaccine mandate, new focus on Illinois ‘Right of Conscience’ act | Illinois

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(The Center Square) – An Illinois state law enacted in 1998 could come into focus next month during fall veto session as Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandate continues to impact various sectors.

Some are worried lawmakers may attempt to take people’s rights away to better enforce the governor’s mandate.

Pritzker issued the COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August for workers in the health care sector, all educators from pre-K through college and college students. He then delayed it by two weeks. Monday marked the first day that teachers across the state were to either prove they got vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

In Springfield District 186, teacher Kadence Koen says she was put on unpaid leave for not submitting to weekly tests. She claims the 1998 state law, the Health Care Right of Conscience Act, gives her protection from submitting to things she objects to.

“I’m a single mom, I have two kids in college right now, so it plays out right now, it’s kind of a scary situation,” Koen told WMAY. “It’s not a decision I came to lightly, but I feel like as a mom and a teacher it is on my shoulders to teach the kids how to stand up for what they believe in whether it’s my kids or somebody else’s kids.”

She’s evaluating what her options are, including potential litigation.

“The benefits of this great country is our forefathers have set up a system to handle situations like this,” Koen said. “And within the confines of the law, I will be pursuing that.”

The HCRCA, enacted in 1998, gives individuals the right to not be discriminated against in their public or private sector job for refusing a medical procedure for which they have a conscientious objection.

“It shall be unlawful for any public or private employer … to impose any burdens in terms or conditions of employment on, or to otherwise discriminate against … on account of the applicant’s refusal to receive, obtain, accept, perform, counsel, suggest, recommend, refer, assist or participate in any way in any forms of health care services contrary to his or her conscience,” part of the HCRCA states.

At Jacksonville public schools, school Superintendent Steve Ptacek published a letter they sent the governor and Illinois State Board of Education saying that the district won’t be excluding staff without more clarity. Ptacek outlined the dilemma: “If we exclude staff that are not complying with Executive Order 2021-20, we assume substantial legal risk, but if we do not exclude employees, we are in defiance of an executive order.”

Defying the governor’s orders could lead to the Illinois State Board of Education putting the district on probation, and possibly impacting state funding to the district.

Ptacek’s letter said it can’t risk taxpayer resources on lengthy lawsuits challenging the governor’s mandate under the HCRCA that could come with tens of thousands in legal liabilities.

“For a $50,000/year employee, the penalties and costs could very realistically cost the taxpayers $500,000 per incident,” he said of potential legal liability if someone wins a case under the HCRCA.

Illinois Fraternal Order of Police President Chris Southwood said he’s aware of conversations about changing the HCRCA.

“There have been some discussions with the governor’s office as far as making changes to the Health Care Right of Conscience Act, I can assure there absolutely have been discussions regarding that,” Southwood said.

He worries state lawmakers could come back next month to reduce individuals’ rights under the law.

“If they’re going to make these changes, they’re going to be taking away the rights of our membership to refuse the mandate and the testing, which is discriminatory in nature,” Southwood said.

Southwood said they’re not anti-vaccine, they’re anti-forced vaccine. And, for law enforcement, he said there could be resignations over the mandate, and no one benefits from fewer police on the streets.

“Hopefully it won’t happen, hopefully this law will stand up and it will prevent our members from being forced to get the vaccine or the testing,” Southwood said.

Southwood said the FOP will be actively opposing changes to what he said is the strongest protections for peoples’ rights, and the union will hold lawmakers accountable.

“We want General Assembly members to know that if you vote for changes in [the HCRCA] we’re going to make sure that your constituents are aware that you’re voting to support these mandated vaccines or the testing,” Southwood said.

Lawmakers return for veto session next month. The Senate President’s office and the House Speaker’s office didn’t immediately return messages seeking comment about whether revising the HCRCA will come up during veto session.

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Caleb Alexander

Caleb Alexander

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