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McMaster signs laws to prevent COVID vaccine mandates and ensure 'religious freedom'

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A worker readies syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Metairie, La., on March 29, 2021. File/Gerald Herbert/AP

COLUMBIA — New laws signed by Gov. Henry McMaster this week ban public employers in South Carolina from mandating COVID vaccinations and ensure church doors can stay open in a future crisis.

Both laws took effect with McMaster's signature April 25. 

McMaster never required in-person worship services to stop even as emergency orders beginning in March 2020, temporarily shut down schools, gatherings and businesses deemed nonessential. The Republican governor repeatedly said he couldn't mandate something he saw as trampling First Amendment religious freedom rights. 

But sponsors of the "Religious Freedom Act" said they wanted to ensure leaders in some future emergency can't reach a different conclusion. They pointed to examples in Democrat-controlled states where churches had to close but liquor stores could stay open.

State law now specifies that during a state of emergency, whether issued by the governor or a local government, worship services are deemed essential as "necessary and vital to the health and welfare of the public." The state still can require a religious group to comply with health and safety requirements as long as they're consistent with rules for all other essential businesses.

Critics called the legislation a solution in search of a problem. But in the end, both chambers of the Statehouse approved it overwhelmingly and the governor readily backed it.

McMaster "knows that no place is more essential in the lives of South Carolinians than their place of worship," said his spokesman, Brian Symmes.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, the governor couldn’t believe what we were seeing in other parts of the country, with governors willingly trampling on Americans' religious liberties by closing down places of worship, calling them 'non-essential,'" Symmes said. "It’s unfortunate that this legislation is even necessary, but it makes clear that no elected official will ever have the ability to keep South Carolinians from their church."

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The push against COVID vaccine mandates started in the House following President Joe Biden's orders in November covering federal contractors, most health care workers and employees of large businesses. A protest and social media barrage from GOP activists demanding a total ban on mandates in South Carolina led to a topsy-turvy debate featuring Democrats scolding Republicans for interfering with private employers' decisions.

Senators took up the effort after the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Biden administration's vaccinate-or-test weekly mandate for large employers but allowed requirements for health care workers to stand.

Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said he didn't want to tell businesses what to do but felt compelled by ultimatums he didn't envision happening in South Carolina. His proposal added massive hikes in unemployment insurance taxes against employers that fired any worker for refusing to get vaccinated. It went too far even for senators in his own caucus, but it certainly accomplished his attention-getting goal.

Business leaders again pushed back, and what ultimately landed on McMaster's desk bars state and local governments from requiring COVID vaccinations for their employees, contractors or, in the case of K-12 schools and colleges, their students. It specifies that any worker fired for not rolling up their sleeve is eligible for unemployment benefits. And it bans so-called vaccine passports, meaning businesses can't require vaccination for entry or services. 

"No South Carolinian should be forced to get a vaccine for any reason, and this legislation helps ensure that they won’t be in the future," Symmes said.

The entire law automatically expires Dec. 31, 2023, unless the Legislature passes another law extending the provisions.  

As of last week, 58 percent of South Carolinians ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the latest data posted by the state's public health agency. 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.