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In the October 28th Special Session to approve the redistricting maps, Republicans in the Iowa Legislature took decisive action to protect the rights of citizens in Iowa to make their own COVID-related healthcare decisions. In spite of the fact that we were not in regular session, and even with the ever-evolving and complex issues related to COVID-19 vaccine mandates by business and government, the Iowa Legislature under Republican leadership still acted, and the Governor signed House File 902. This legislation requires businesses to grant all medical and religious COVID-19 vaccine waiver requests. In this edition of Freedom Watch, I will explain the history that brought us to this moment, the challenges we faced in taking action, and the reasoning for the legislation we passed to protect the freedoms of Iowans.

In September, the Biden administration announced that COVID-19 vaccines would be mandatory in many businesses. This likely unconstitutional mandate has yet to go into effect, but the threat is clear: businesses with over one hundred employees may be fined a substantial amount of money if they do not require COVID-19 vaccines. As a result of this federal coercion, many businesses have initiated COVID-19 vaccine mandates, with the threat of termination for all who do not comply. House Republicans, including myself, received thousands of calls, emails and messages from Iowans concerned that their civil rights were being violated by the Biden Administration’s policies and by businesses intruding into their private healthcare decisions through coercive mandates and threatened termination. Families were left fearful of job loss and questioning how they would provide for their families as the holidays approached. After months of work, House File 902 was created. This straightforward legislation found the middle ground we needed to gain consensus for passage, and respect as much as possible in this situation, the concept of limited government. It effectively protects the civil rights of employees, while also allowing employers to make their own decisions about vaccine requirements.

If an employer requires an employee to get a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must also accept a religious or medical waiver from their employees and waive the vaccine requirement if a signed statement is presented. The bill also makes it clear that if an employee is fired for not taking the COVID-19 vaccine, which I believe would be a wrongful termination and clear violation of the law, employees can still receive unemployment benefits. House File 902 helps protect employees from being forced to choose between their job and the fundamental right of being secure in their person.

Since early September, I have received many alarming emails from Iowans who have submitted medical or religious waivers, only to have them rejected by their employer. The level of intrusiveness and outright disregard for basic human dignity and civil rights have been deeply disturbing. Here are just a few egregious examples:

  • An employee submitted two letters from two separate doctors advising that they not be required to take the COVID-19 vaccine due to serious medical complications. The waiver was rejected, and the employee was threatened with the loss of their job for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • A woman had to disclose to her employer that she was trying to get pregnant. Incredibly, she was asked how long she had been trying to conceive.
  • An employee with deeply held religious beliefs submitted a letter sighting significant religious text to explain their objection to the COVID-19 vaccine. Their waiver was rejected because the employer said the letter needed to be in the employee’s own words, that quotes from the religious text (Bible) were not acceptable.
  • Employees who submitted religious waivers were questioned about specific life choices including if they participated in “risky behavior” outside of work.
  • Employees were asked to get a “note” from their religious leader to justify their religious objection, as if an individual could not have a view that differed from leaders in their faith.

These constitutionally questionable rejections and outrageous questions made it clear that not all businesses were protecting the civil rights of employees, and that there was a strong level of inconsistency as to how these exemption requests were being managed. The objective of House File 902 is to make it clear that if an employer chooses to require the COVID vaccine in Iowa, they must respect the rights of their employees at the same time.

I have seen a number of statements and questions on social media and in email regarding House File 902, some of which are based on inaccurate information. I will answer some of the most common ones below.

  • Question – Why not do what Montana did and create a protected class for vaccine status? This solution goes well beyond the COVID-19 vaccine mandate and gets into the issue of vaccines in general, including those that have been around for generations that many in our society consider safe. This far-reaching approach most certainly needs to go through the sub-committee and committee process afforded to us during regular session, so that the unintended consequences can be carefully considered, and so that we can receive important input from Iowans. The complexity of this approach, the implications of unintended consequences and the far-reaching aspects of expanding the conversation to include all vaccinations was not possible during Special Session.
  •  Question – Why not simply ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Iowa? This looks great at first glance but likely will not work given the current state of affairs. If and when the Biden Administration does mandate the vaccine, businesses would be left in a vice, forced to choose between following state law or federal law/regulations. House File 902 requires that all medical and religious waivers be granted, hopefully allowing businesses to comply with both federal and state requirements while also protecting the rights of Iowans to make their own private medical decisions. Additionally, we believe a state ban of COVID-19 vaccine mandates would be much more likely to fail in a court challenge, as opposed to the mandatory granting of waivers rooted in fundamental liberties found in the Bill of Rights.
  •  Assertion – This legislation “protects employers and has no penalty.” This is perhaps the most difficult argument to understand because it is not rooted in reality. House File 902 requires businesses to grant religious and medical waiver requests from employees. Additionally, if an employee is terminated for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, they will be eligible for unemployment benefits, and the increased unemployment contribution rate must be paid for by the employer that terminated the employee. Therefore, an employer who does not honor these waiver requests, or discharges an employee over refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine, could be subject to wrongful termination cases, and will face increased unemployment contribution rates.
  •  Assertion – This legislation does nothing to protect employees of federal contractors in Iowa. We are hopeful that this legislation will provide a means by which contractors can honor federal requirements while also following state law by granting all exemption requests, which will in turn protect Iowa workers. Additionally, because we believe this federal mandate on contractors is unlawful, Iowa has also joined a lawsuit to stop the federal government from being able to enforce this mandate on federal contractors. This multi-layered approach demonstrates our strategy to fight back through legislation and in our courts of justice.
  • Assertion – Those who voted for this legislation are “sell-outs.” There is no silver-bullet, perfect solution to the complexities we face with the COVID-19 vaccine mandates. To suggest that doing nothing because a proposal is not perfect and does not solve all problems, is better than passing effective but imperfect legislation that saves jobs and helps protect Iowans makes no sense to me. Ronald Reagan’s success as President has sometimes been attributed to his willingness to not make Perfect the enemy of Good. Our form of government can only work through finding common ground to get things done, and while legislation will rarely be perfect, that does not mean we should therefore do nothing. We will rarely find the pure and perfect solution; our job as legislators is to find the common ground, in defense of our values, and pass effective legislation that makes a positive difference in people’s lives. It should also be noted that only one Republican did not support this legislation in the House, precisely because the rest of us understood the importance of taking effective action, even if not a silver bullet, to help protect people’s jobs. Had this common ground approach not been followed, in the last few years we would not have passed Constitutional Carry, the Life Amendment, the ban on Sanctuary Cities, the ban on Critical Race Theory, historic tax cuts, legislation supporting law enforcement; the list goes on and on. None of these initiatives were perfect, none of them solved all problems, and all of them required compromise to find common ground, but they advanced the cause of liberty, which is exactly what House File 902 did.
  • Assertion – House File 902 did nothing to protect Iowans. The testimonials of many Iowans, received after this legislation was passed, strongly suggest otherwise. Here are just a few: “You saved many jobs today and many more in the next few weeks. We were offered temporary positions for now. Thank you so much for everything you did. Without your effort, it wouldn’t have been possible;” “I just got word that employee health is working the weekend to switch all denials to approvals;” “I was just told I’m on paid leave instead of being terminated, while the company evaluates the new law.” There are many more testimonials like this, from Iowans across the state.

House File 902 is not a silver bullet, but we believe it to be a positive step forward in a struggle that is likely to go on for the foreseeable future. We intend to monitor the ever-changing landscape of the often unconstitutional and irrational actions related to COVID-19 and we will stand up for freedom in our courts of law and through legislation. The approach taken in House File 902 is unique and has not yet been used in other states, although several states have reached out to learn more about our actions. We will measure its effectiveness, taking additional steps and approaches as needed to defend the liberty of Iowans. House File 902 took a stand for liberty, it is making a difference, and I am proud to have supported it and help save the jobs of my fellow Iowans.

Author: Steven Holt