MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - A lawmaker says he plans to propose a bill that would prohibit Alabama’s state health officer from mandating all residents take a vaccine.
State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said he is drafting legislation to begin the conversation about vaccines in the state legislature.
“It would not allow the state public health officer to mandate a uniform, across the board vaccination of all adults in the state,” he said. “I’ve been contacted by numerous constituents saying they’re concerned about any government mandate to require individuals to take a vaccine against their wishes.”
Orr said lawmakers need to consider exceptions on who should be required to take a vaccine, but did not go into details about what those exceptions might look like.
“There are some that we have in place now, for vaccinations, when it comes to schoolchildren and things like that would be a good starting point,” Orr said. “But we want to look across state lines and see how other states have dealt with this issue, bring them together, present them to the legislature and see if we can make some sound policy decisions rather than a draconian, one size fits all, and the government mandates that all individuals have to get vaccinated.”
Orr said legislative attorneys tell him Alabama law might allow a state health officer to mandate vaccinations.
“But it would be subject to challenge,” Orr added, “and that has to wash out through the judicial process, and that, of course, takes time.”
A spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Public Health said the following when asked if the State Health Officer has the authority to mandate adult vaccinations:
Eric Johnston, a Birmingham constitutional lawyer, said the law is not clear on whether the state health officer has the authority to mandate all adults take a vaccine.
“The law is still kind of vague and there is not a clear authority that would say that he can without qualification mandate a vaccination,” Johnston said.
Johnston believes such a mandate would be immediately challenged in court., though he thinks the process would move quickly through the courts.
“Some people have religious objections to taking a vaccination,” he explained. “There may be other basis for it. Some basis may not be a good constitutional argument, whereas religion, of course, would be a constitutional argument that a person could make.”
Johnston said the only significant case regarding a mandated vaccine was decided in 1905.
“That dealt with a required compulsory vaccination for smallpox in Massachusetts, and the Supreme Court upheld that compulsory vaccination. However, many legal scholars questioned the extent of that case and the basis for it. "
Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Karen Landers said in November “persons will not be required to take the vaccine product and, at this time, we have no other incentives for the product other than it will be free.”
A spokesperson for Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office said they did not have a comment when asked if the state has the authority to mandate adults take a vaccine.
An ADPH spokesperson said while state law requires children in childcare centers and schools to have a certificate of immunization for childhood vaccines, or a religious or medical exemption, this is not applicable in COVID-19.
Sen. Orr said his bill would focus more on individuals past the school age. The bill is still being drafted.
The senator said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris has done a “phenomenal” job approaching the COVID-19 virus.
“It’s more about what happens next time,” he said. “While it’s on people’s minds, we need to take a look at it and come up with sound policy in the legislature that is reasonable going forward for years to come.”
[This story has been updated to include a statement from the Alabama Department of Public Health]