A few hundred people gathered at the Iowa Capitol Oct. 28, 2021 to protest vaccine mandates. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
Iowa lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday to provide exemptions to employer vaccine mandates, but anti-mandate activists said the legislation doesn’t go far enough.
A crowd of a few hundred people gathered in the Capitol rotunda for a “STAND for Freedom” rally before lawmakers gaveled in for a special session on redistricting. Attendees hoisted signs opposing vaccine mandates and warning of tyranny and socialism, chanting “No mandates!” between songs, prayers and speeches.
During the event, news broke that lawmakers would consider a bill on vaccine mandates. The bill, which began the day as House Study Bill 281, would create exemptions for employees who refused the COVID-19 vaccine due to religious reasons, or because getting the shot would be “injurious to the health and well-being of the employee.”
The bill would also allow people to collect unemployment benefits if they were fired for refusing to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Activists push for ban on vaccine mandates
But protesters at Iowa’s Capitol did not celebrate. Attendees and speakers called for more expansive legislation that would outright prohibit employer and government vaccine mandates, rather than just provide exceptions and unemployment benefits.
“We need to go up to the galleries and have people look us in the eyeballs as they make the decisions here today,” said Brei Johnson, vice president of Informed Choice Iowa and an organizer of the event. “They’re scared, and we need to show them that we’re watching.”
Johnson led the rally in a chant: “Kill this bill! Kill this bill!”
Some Republican lawmakers spoke at the event, also calling for more expansive legislation.
“What I don’t want to see happen is now our rights are going to be defined by exemptions instead of the Constitution of the United States,” Sen. Jim Carlin said, eliciting cheers.
Rep. Sandy Salmon walked among the crowd, socializing with protesters. She said vaccine mandates are an “unreasonable seizure of your health,” and argued Thursday’s bill would not do enough to prevent them.
“It’s not going to be a full-on prohibition of employers mandating the COVID-19 vaccines… We’ve got a ways to go to win those protections and those freedoms back,” she said, standing on the balcony above the crowd below.
Attendees of the rally said the same: they wanted a ban on all vaccine mandates, not exemptions and unemployment benefits.
“Montana made mandates illegal, period, in business or government,” said Clare Tyler, 74. “That’s what I really want to see.”
Tyler and a group of neighbors left Fairfield, Iowa, before dawn to attend Thursday’s rally. She opposes mask and vaccine mandates, even though she personally faces neither as a “semi-retired” office worker. Even so, Tyler said she worries about airlines requiring vaccines and other potential restrictions.
Keith Greenlee, a school bus driver from Swan, said he doesn’t approve of the government or employers telling people what to do. He argued that Iowa should allow every person to choose whether or not to be vaccinated.
“People are trying to make a living, and then they get fired because they won’t get a stupid shot,” said Greenlee, 69.
The tensions between activists and lawmakers came to a head in a House subcommittee meeting on the bill. Several members of the public told lawmakers they believed the bill would be ineffective and people would still be fired when they refused the vaccine, and they criticized the bill’s authors for only releasing the text this morning. Many speakers objected outright to the idea of sharing medical and personal information with employers.
Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, R-Wilton, acknowledged that the bill “does not go as far as a lot of us, myself included, would like.” He said that it came down to a vote: This bill is what could pass in both chambers and get signed into law.
Kaufmann appointed Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, to expand upon the legislation ahead of the next session in January.
“We’re going to figure out what we need to do to improve on this so when we come back in January, we’re ready,” Kaufmann said.
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