COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina House of Representatives has given key approval to a bill that would severely limit or outright restrict vaccine mandates in the state.
Lawmakers voted in favor of the bill on a 67-31 vote during a second reading Thursday night. A third reading will take place Friday morning but that is typically just a formality, with few votes changing during the final roll call in most cases. If it's approved, as expected, it will move to the Senate for consideration, although they might not take it up until next month.
The bill, H. 3126, prohibits state agencies from requiring the vaccine, as well as local municipalities, school systems, and first responder agencies such as fire departments and EMS.
In the final hours of debate one important change was made on a controversial provision regarding private businesses. Earlier, the bill said private employers couldn't fire employees for refusing the shot, which concerned many Democrats.
House Democrats that opposed the bill said it would allow people to sue businesses for unlawful termination, which would financially cripple most companies.
However, that part of the bill was later changed to say that if an employee is terminated by a private company for refusing vaccination, they would be eligible for unemployment benefits.
The bill got an unusual fast-tracking through the chamber. It was approved by a subcommittee on Tuesday, then a full committee on Thursday morning. The House passed a special order to allow all members of the chamber to consider it later in the day, since bills typically have to wait for 24 hours until they can reach the next step in the legislative process.
"The only thing I've seen fast-tracked like this is when Boeing came to South Carolina, we all had to come together to do that," said House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, an opponent of the bill. "This bill is receiving unprecedented attention."
Rutherford worried the bill could hurt small businesses and create unsafe environments.
"In South Carolina, we need to let businesses determine who needs to be vaccinated, and who does not. We already know we're suffering from a pandemic of the unvaccinated," said Rutherford.
This week, nearly 30 South Carolina business associations wrote a joint letter against the restrictions on private businesses, saying it's an overreach of government. But the bill's sponsor, State Representative Stewart Jones, said it was necessary to protect individual rights.
"The real issue that we're debating today is a question of freedom," Jones said. "It's a question of if anybody should make you inject something in your body without your own will."
"We as South Carolinians have to stand up for our constituents, we have to stand up for our South Carolina constitution," Jones said.
Thursday's vote at the State House comes weeks after federal COVID vaccine mandates were halted by federal courts. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson has filed or joined three different suit opponent the Biden Administration's plan.