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IllinoisDemocratic governor on Monday updated a preexisting state law from the 1970s to allow penalties for workers who don’t abide by COVID-19-related mandates on vaccines, masks and testing.

“Masks, vaccines, and testing requirements are life-saving measures that keep our workplaces and communities safe,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement Monday. “Keeping workplaces safe is a high priority, and I applaud the General Assembly for ensuring that the Health Care Right of Conscience Act is no longer wrongly used against institutions who are putting safety and science first.”

Enacted in 1978, the Health Care Right of Conscience Act was originally intended to allow medical professionals to refuse to receive or participate in health care services contrary to their personal beliefs, including religious or moral objections to specific services, such as abortion.

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Democratic Attorney General Kwame Raoul had asked Pritzker to clarify that the legislation does not do anything to restrict workplaces’ measures intended to prevent the spread of deadly, communicable diseases like COVID-19. In signing SB 1169 into law, the governor said the “amendment will ensure the long tradition of vaccine requirements by employers can continue with regard to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker attends a fundraiser on April 12, 2018, in Chicago. <span class="copyright">Scott Olson/Getty Images</span>

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker attends a fundraiser on April 12, 2018, in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The changes come after several lawsuits by workers cited the law’s conscience-based exemption, arguing that their employers could not force them to get a vaccine for COVID-19, Fox 32 of Chicago reported. The amendment does not take effect until June 1, 2022.

Despite Democrats wanting it to take effect immediately, the state constitution required more votes in the floor action than garnered. Some Republicans argue this leaves time for addition lawsuits, but another vote after Jan. 1, 2022, could allow the amendment to take effect sooner.

Democrats, including state House Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and state Rep. Robyn Gabel, have insisted that the law does not take away anyone’s rights to claim exemptions based on sincerely held religious beliefs or other medical reasons, which are protected by federal law. But some experts believe that such exemptions will not be readily available under three federal statutes cited by Pritzker’s office.

Welch and Gabel argued that “a small minority of people” had been skirting COVID-19 requirements by distorting the meaning of the law, thus putting vulnerable members of society and workers in high-risk environments, such as hospitals, veterans’ homes and schools, in danger.

Outside of Illinois, lawsuits in New York and Maine are fighting workplace vaccine mandates based on the U.S. Constitution’s Free Exercise of Religion clause. The suits could advance to the Supreme Court.

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