Tennessee Republican lawmakers hope to fight local mask mandates, federal vaccine requirements during special session

Tennessee lawmakers gather for a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly to take up incentives for Ford to create an electric vehicle manufacturing campus in West Tennessee, Monday, Oct. 18, 2021, at the State Capitol in Nashville, Tenn. (Stephanie Amador/The Tennessean via AP)

NASHVILLE - When Tennessee lawmakers head back to Nashville this week for another special session, the Republican supermajority hopes to fight back against a federal mandate that larger employers must require employee vaccination against COVID-19.

Other matters up for debate include proposals to intervene against school-mask mandates, an issue already being fought before three federal judges in Tennessee.

Also on the table: the authority of the state's six independent county health boards and whether the COVID-19 vaccine should be administered to more mature minors without parent or guardian consent.

Another area in the special session call is the governor's emergency powers. Some Republicans have been upset for well over a year by executive orders issued by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to deal with COVID-19, such as allowing county mayors to impose mask mandates.

Last week's special session was called by Lee for lawmakers to approve the state's nearly $900 million incentive-and-infrastructure package for a planned $5.6 billion Ford Motor Co. electric truck and battery complex in West Tennessee. But Lee evidently wanted no part of the COVID-19 special session and declined to call lawmakers back into session.

So Republican lawmakers mustered the necessary two-thirds majority of sign-ups to call themselves into special session, starting Wednesday afternoon.

That's only been done twice in the state's 225-year history. The first time was in 1971, when lawmakers approved the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving 18- to 20-year-olds the right to vote. The second was in 1982 for a ceremonial convening of the General Assembly at the Knoxville World's Fair, according to research conducted by legislative librarian Eddie Weeks.

While Republicans have ideas aplenty about coronavirus legislation, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, told the Times Free Press last week he intends to file a bill in the special session based on a Montana law. It purports to prohibit employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of employment, which appears to be a direct challenge to the Biden administration's pending order from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Another legislator, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleocka, already has filed two bills.

One seeks to designate any side effects from COVID-19 vaccines as injuries eligible for workers' compensation. It targets private-sector employers and higher education colleges and universities. That was part of Lee's package of bills in a 2020 special session he called on COVID-19, intended to protect employers.

Cepicky's second bill would allow school board candidates to run with a party affiliation, instead of the current setup with all nonpartisan candidates. A number of Republicans are angry about school mask mandates and believe more partisan school boards would be more responsive to the party base.

Republican legislative leaders said members are welcome to file bills and see what they can pass, especially with regard to blocking vaccination and mask requirements.

"I think one of the things we discussed is the call is broad enough where we can discuss what all the states have done and figure out if there's a direction we want to go," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, told state Capitol reporters last week during a news conference with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, the Senate speaker, and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland, and others.

"We'll see what direction that we want to come out on to protect individuals from who want to have their personal decision in what's happening to them," Sexton added, alluding to federal vaccination requirements on employees working at firms employing 100 or more workers.

McNally agreed.

"There's a lot of different things happening from different companies. Some are saying you have to get a vaccine, you have to be able to show that you've had the vaccine. And there are some people who can't take vaccines for medical reasons and some people who have immunity because they're already had the disease and they can show they've had the immunity."

Lamberth said data now shows fully vaccinated people can spread the virus.

"What really bothers me the most is not an individual business requiring a vaccine. Folks could leave that job and go to another one. It's that entire sectors of our economy have decided to put in kind of an arbitrary vaccine mandate and that leaves folks and their choice of field in work without any options whatsoever," Lamberth said, noting many have advanced training and degrees.

"The vaccine doesn't stop the spread of this, it just reduces the symptoms and can potentially reduce the spread. But it's not a perfect solution to this," Lamberth said.

Not all fans

Not everyone is a fan of the General Assembly coming into special session on pandemic issues. Democrats are opposed, and some Republicans aren't eager to address several of the issues posing conflicts with business interests.

"I would like to see my colleagues deal with the facts and the truth when it comes to vaccines and not allow political rhetoric to be the norm," Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, said in a telephone interview on Sunday. "I have to question in my own mind if part of the effort is to put fear in the minds of persons who may be swayed by the political rhetoric.

"We have people dying in the rural areas and urban areas from COVID, and the mindset of a number of legislators is that the rights of the minority in this case outweigh the health and safety of the majority," Hakeem added. "And I would hope they accept the rulings by judges that the state as I understand it cannot overrule the federal guidelines that are being put forth by the president or the school boards."

Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, a registered nurse by training, said in a telephone interview over the weekend that she plans to do a lot of listening during debate.

"I'm interested in finding out an answer to a basic question: I do respect the fact that private employers have the rights to apply conditions of employment because that's within their property rights.

"But," she added, "I also believe that employees do not abandon their right to informed consent over medical conditions and treatments once they are in that employment. So it's really an interesting conflict."

Smith said that while she saw the need to get a COVID vaccination and thought strongly enough about it to persuade family members to do so as well, it should remain a personal decision.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.