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Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, talks with people attending a Senate hearing to discuss a fetal heartbeat abortion ban on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — As the Republican-controlled Tennessee General Assembly prepares to return Wednesday to the state Capitol — where GOP lawmakers have called themselves into a special session to target vaccination requirements and mask mandates — one GOP lawmaker is denouncing what he called an "evil" federal government.

"There is an evil government in Washington, D.C., that is overstepping its bounds and is trying to replace God with it. They're trying to tell each and every one of us what we can and cannot do," state Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, said Sunday as he spoke at a three-day conference at the Opryland Resort and Convention Center. "Not on my watch. Not here."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Hendrell Remus on Monday sharply criticized Pody over his remarks, which were reported by Nashville radio station WPLN.

"I think those comments are dangerous, and they're irresponsible, especially from someone who is serving in a public role, as a public servant," Remus said. "As a parent whose child spent his entire fall break recovering from COVID, I'm appalled."

The livestreamed conference was hosted by Ty and Charlene Bollinger and their group Truth About Cancer. Their organization has recently focused on COVID-19 vaccines with information that medical experts say is often misleading or false.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate lists the couple among its "Disinformation Dozen" that it says head groups "responsible for the bulk of anti-vaxx content shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter."

Also appearing at the conference was conservative activist Gary Humble, the head of Tennessee Stands, which fought Gov. Bill Lee in court over his early COVID-19 restrictions and against local government entities over their efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This year, Humble and others were a constant presence at the Legislature.

"We are responding to what we know to be medical tyranny," Humble declared in another break-out panel at the conference. "Health freedom, I believe, is the seminal issue of our time concerning liberty and how government works and concerning this egregious overreach we're seeing coming from the federal government and even in our state."

The conference was held as a number of Tennessee Republican lawmakers are irate over local and federal COVID-19 restrictions ranging from local school mask requirements to President Joe Biden's plan to require federal contractors and companies with 100 or more employees to require they be vaccinated or be tested weekly.

"In the last few weeks y'all wouldn't believe what has gone on behind the scenes that allowed us to continue to have this conference here with no masks, no vaccine requirements and no social distancing. Like a conference should be held," Ty Bollinger said as audience members cheered and applauded, Nashville public radio station WPLN reported.

During his presentation, Humble noted Tennessee Stands had filed multiple lawsuits challenging the state and local entities on various COVID-19 mandates. Among them was one challenging Lee's decision to delegate authority to local governments to take actions — including mandating mask usage — to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

"Our organization also helped draft the bill that passed this year," Humble said. "Our state, no state agency, including public schools, can mandate a shot for COVID-19. So we actually were able to get that done in our state, and I'm thankful for that," Humble said amid cheers and applause. "In fact, there might be some in the room who were part of the 400 of us who showed up on the Capitol steps to make sure they knew we were watching, right, when they went in to vote."

Humble also advised audience members to be cautious of news headlines, citing a bill that he said prompted coverage stating "Tennessee bans vaccine passport."

"Everybody went, 'I want to move to Tennessee,'" Humble said. But the new law, he added, actually says that "government cannot require a business to require the use of vaccine passports."

"Businesses can require the use of passports here in Tennessee," Humble said. "Part of our mission is to make sure that in our state of Tennessee that citizens are aware of what the Legislature is and is not doing. And I hope if you do not have one of those organizations in your state, maybe one of you is going to start one."

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

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