A bill to prohibit the use of vaccine passports by employers or governments passed the House this legislative session despite fears that it takes an overly broad approach that could hamstring future public health efforts.

HB60 would essentially make vaccination status a protected class — similar to race, sex and religion — and prevent employers from requiring vaccination as a term of employment. The bill comes amid pushback against COVID-19 vaccination requirements but isn’t limited to the current pandemic.

That’s why Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, unsuccessfully tried to substitute the bill with one that would apply only to COVID-19. He called his substitution a “scalpel approach” that would accomplish the goal of preventing coronavirus vaccine passports without tying the hands of health officials during future pandemics — which could be more deadly than COVID-19.

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Hawkes argued that creating a “protected class” of people based on vaccination status would put undue burdens on businesses. While such burdens are necessary to protect people based on their race or sex, he said vaccination status is different.

Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, shows his vaccination card on his phone while discussing HB60 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. The bill would prohibit governments or employers from requiring vaccines passports. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

He pointed to exemptions in the bill for health care industries as evidence that vaccines can be compelled in certain situations.

“That’s because vaccines are a bit tricky, because a transmissible illness potentially affects other people’s rights,” Hawkes said. “It’s tricky that way, and that’s why we don’t treat it the same way that we might treat race or religion or things like that. If it was something like race or religion ... we wouldn’t accept exemptions to it.”

Rep. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, also supported the substitution, arguing that it puts “our state and our businesses in Utah at extreme risk.”

Hawkes’ motion to target the bill toward COVID-19 failed, and the House passed the earlier version that was discussed in committee last week.

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Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, talks about HB60, which he is sponsoring, in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. The bill would prohibit governments or employers from requiring vaccine passports. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, who sponsored the bill, acknowledged the difficulty in finding a balance between individual liberty and public health, but said he believes the bill does a good job of that.

“No one has a right to your personal information. You don’t have the right to go spread disease. So, we have to figure out where do we draw this line,” he said.

Brooks argued that his bill is an effort to protect the privacy of citizens and would prevent them from having to “show papers” to enter businesses and public spaces. Privacy was a key factor for others who spoke in favor of the bill.

“It is worth it to have a protected class related to privacy. ... We need to stop getting into the middle of each other’s health information,” said Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland.

If a future crisis arises, Brammer said the Legislature and governor could create exemptions from the bill or pass future laws to enact vaccine mandates if need be. The governor has the power to declare a public health emergency for up to 30 days, after which the Legislature would need to vote to continue it.

Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, took issue with repeated calls for privacy and freedom that lack any mention of responsibility to protect one another. Even though Utahns are learning to live with the virus, he pointed out that COVID-19 has taken a severe toll on the state.

“We hear often now, what the low infection rates are and the low death rates, ‘It’s only killed 1,000 people.’ Which, you know, I guess that’s OK if it doesn’t include your family,” he said.

To date, 4,372 Utahns have died from COVID-19, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The bill ignores the “social compact” people have as a society, Nelson said, and “grants our citizens a right to infect others.” From a conservative perspective, he compared the issue to that of abortion, saying he thinks the right of a woman’s “bodily autonomy” is superseded by a fetus’ right to life.

Getting vaccinated is an “obligation,” he said, pushing back on those who say they have “a fundamental, God-given right to go wherever ... whether I’m contagious or not.”

“That’s an entirely selfish perspective of rights,” he said.

“It is true that we should have a sense of community,” said Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale. “It is true that we don’t know what the future holds. But for me, it is true, from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head, that no one should ask you to do something against my will that is not reversible.”

In closing the discussion, Brooks rejected the idea that lawmakers are “using a mandate to remove a mandate,” saying they were acting as “the voice of the people to remove that mandate.”

“Without this peaceful process, it relies on pitchforks and torches,” he said.

HB60 passed the House 51-23. It now goes to the Senate, where Sen. Michael Kennedy, R-Alpine, is the floor sponsor.

Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, talks about HB60, which he is sponsoring, in the House chamber at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. The bill would prohibit governments or employers from requiring vaccine passports. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News