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Ky. lawmakers advance bills banning vaccine, mask requirements

Kentucky lawmakers advanced two Republican-sponsored efforts to limit how local government and state agencies handle the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday—one banning mask mandates, the other banning vaccine mandates.

The state House of Representatives passed House Bill 51, which would ban mask requirements at public schools, state universities and child care centers.

Rep. Lynn Bechler, a Republican from Marion and sponsor of the bill, said decisions about masks should be left up to parents, but said local officials can still advocate for the cause.

“The lever is the school board, the superintendent, the principals talking to the parents. If they are as good as I’ve heard they are today, then they can make the case the masks are in fact necessary,” Bechler said.

During a special legislative session last fall, lawmakers passed a measure banning Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and the state Board of Education from requiring masks at schools across the state. But they left decisions about masking up to local school districts.

On Tuesday, several Republicans joined all Democrats in opposing the outright ban on mask mandates.

Rep. Jim DuPlessis, a Republican from Elizabethtown who voted against it, said school districts should have the option to require masks.

“My school board has already taken masks away. Most of the school boards I represent have taken masks away. And here we are, we’re going to do something that could cause an unforeseen circumstance if another variant comes up,” DuPlessis said.

After the legislature allowed local districts to make decisions about masking, all but six still required them, though the number has fallen off in recent weeks as spread of the virus has slowed down across the state and country.

Samuel Crankshaw, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said the organization opposes the bill.

“If the Kentucky General Assembly not only ignores – but defies – their responsibility to equal protection under the law, students with some disabilities may be placed in harm's way. Schools need flexibility to adapt so no child is forced to choose between their health and their education,” Crankshaw wrote.

The House State Government Committee advanced House Bill 28 on Tuesday, banning state agencies, local governments and public universities from requiring employees to disclose whether they are vaccinated, or even asking workers about their vaccination status.

The measure would have originally also banned private employers from mandating vaccines, though the bill was altered after pushback from the business community.

Rep. Savannah Maddox, a Republican from Dry Ridge and sponsor of the bill, said she wished it went further.

“I am fundamentally and ideologically opposed to people being forced to receive a vaccine against their will,” Maddox said.

Similar to the debate over mask mandates, several lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns that the measure would limit local authorities from being able to respond to crises.

J.D. Chaney, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities, said his organization opposes the bill.

“Local officials are in the best position to make local decisions locally. Because it violates that tenet, that basic principle of home rule, our board has voted to oppose the legislation,” Chaney said.

Rep. Pamela Stevenson, a Democrat from Louisville, said blocking agencies from asking about someone’s vaccination status would get in the way of protecting the public.

“If the government is responsible for protecting Kentuckians, what are they to do when we’re in such a thing as a pandemic, they don’t have information to make decisions on?” Stevenson asked. “How do you protect the community from a pandemic if you’re not allowed to ask the question?”