KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A number of bills were passed early Saturday morning as the Special COVID-19 Session wrapped up in Nashville. Among them was a bill that looks to block vaccine and mask mandates coming from public schools, government entities and private businesses.
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton said it’s about protecting parents’ rights, while State Representative Gloria Johnson says it’s about protecting students.
“I think the big points that we were able to pass last night and agreement with the Senate was protecting Tennesseans for mandatory vaccinations, protecting the parents’ right to make the decision of for their children whether or not to wear masks in school and protect their health rights,” Sexton said.
“Private schools can have masks, but public schools can’t, unless in severe circumstances. You know, why are we protecting kids in private schools, but not protecting kids in public schools?” Johnson said.
When it comes to mask mandates, there is now an exception to the block on schools and government entities. It falls under what the law calls “severe conditions,” which means if a county has 1,000 new infections per 100,000 residents, then they can implement a mask mandate. A number that hasn’t happened yet in Tennessee.
This does not mean school systems in Tennessee that are currently under a mask mandate will be heading to school maskless, even if Gov. Bill Lee signs this bill into law. The court ordered mandates in schools in Knox, Shelby and Williamson counties that were put in place by federal judges will still be in place. Senator Richard Briggs said the legal repercussions from this bill and how it applies to these federally instituted mandates would need to be worked out in court.
“Whether the judge would have to issue a separate order for that or not, we’re going to have to get very complicated the legal aspects of it. And there’s even some disagreement with the attorneys on what that actually means,” Briggs said. “I don’t think the law will affect the appeal at all. That’s all in the court system. That’s going to be determined by the judges and the appellate court.”
The bill passed would also prevent many businesses from requiring an employee to get the COVID vaccine. This would be in opposition to a recent announcement from President Biden asking OSHA to require all employers with more than 100 workers to have them vaccinated or tested weekly.
“Next week OSHA is coming out with rules. They could be different than what we just passed. And we all know that federal law trumps state law,” said Rep. Johnson
What the bills passed could do, is put Tennessee lawmakers in a position to oppose what they feel is federal overreach in court.
“What we did is we set forth the policy and we put in place a house joint resolution as the Attorney General to represent Tennesseans in general symbols when the OSHA regulations come out, which we think are unconstitutional,” Sexton said. “And attacks on the employee, employer. And so we look forward to having our day in court pushing back on the federal government and winning for Tennessee.” Sexton said.
However, Constitutional law expert and LMU professor Stewart Harris said that it all boils down to the fact that federal law trumps state law.
“Tennessee can regulate its own businesses and its own people as it sees fit but there’s one big caveat it cannot do something that’s inconsistent with federal law,” Harris said. “So, if any of the things that Tennessee is about to enact is inconsistent with the OSHA regulations that President Biden is proposing or other statutes or laws that the federal government has passed well then those laws will be preempted as we say they will be unconstitutional because when federal law and state law conflict federal law wins every time.”
The next step for this bill and others that were passed to end the special session will have to go to Gov. Lee’s office where he can sign them into law or strike them down. He tweeted on Saturday that he was looking very closely at the bills.