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Politics & Government

Idaho Republicans want to strengthen religious opt-outs for COVID-19 vaccines

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A House committee signed off on a bill Tuesday to strengthen religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The proposal would force companies to prove they have a compelling interest in denying a religious exemption request. They would also have to show that denying the request was the “least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

“As vaccine mandates have rolled out, many employees have discovered that their religious freedom is not taken very seriously,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Julianne Young (R-Blackfoot).

Employees could sue their company if their request was denied and recover legal costs, though employers couldn’t get attorney's fees if they win.

“The idea is that we respect religious freedom and give the broadest latitude possible to the individual,” Young said.

Civil jury trials have been on hold through much of the pandemic, leaving a backlog of cases.

Rep. John Gannon (D-Boise) said this bill could add to that logjam.

“That’s just going to be a lot of expense and I don’t think your civil lawsuit is going to go as fast as you might think,” Gannon said.

One of the state’s largest employers, St. Luke’s Health System, reported 11% of its staff received a medical or religious exemption in response to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Just six employees, or 0.04% of the hospital’s workforce, were fired.

Pope Francis and LDS church leaders have endorsed COVID-19 vaccines, while skepticism has flourished among evangelicals.

The entire Idaho House of Representatives will consider Young’s bill next.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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