A Tennessee lawmaker has filed a bill that would give parents a greater right to refuse vaccines for their children during a pandemic based on religious objections or “by right of conscience.”

Current Tennessee law gives parents the legal right to refuse vaccinations for their children in order to enroll them in school in most instances — but only “in the absence of an epidemic or immediate threat thereof.”

The bill introduced by Rep. Jay Reedy, R-Erin would remove longstanding references to an epidemic, allowing parents to assert the right to not obtain school-required immunizations before sending their children to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rep. Jay Reedy, R- Erin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Jay Reedy, R- Erin (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Current law allows parents to refuse immunizations in most circumstances, but includes this out: “except where the medical examination, immunization is necessary for the protection of the health and safety of others.”

Reedy’s measure would delete that portion of the law, too.

The bill represents what could prove be a new front in the politicized fight against the COVID-19 virus, which has brought record numbers of infections and deaths to Tennessee in just the past week.

While debates over masks and mask requirements and, in some cases, even the damage wrought by the disease have raged since it first arrived in the United States in early 2020, epidemiologists have pinned many of their initial hopes on containing the disease to widespread vaccinations.

Under Reedy’s proposed measure, both state and local efforts to enforce immunization requirements for schoolchildren would be limited once a vaccine to COVID-19 becomes available.

The bill’s language, which is in initial stages and may be altered before the legislature reconvenes in January, states “a state agency or department shall not promulgate or enforce any rule, and a political subdivision of this state shall not promulgate, adopt, or enforce any ordinance or resolution that requires medical examination, immunization or treatment for those who object to the medical examination, immunization, or treatment on religious grounds or by right of conscience.”

The bill’s introduction comes ahead of a promising rollout of a pair of COVID-19 vaccines that state health department director Dr. Lisa Piercey said earlier this week could be available in Tennessee as early as December 1 for at risk populations and healthcare providers, and as soon as this Spring for everyone else.

Reedy did not respond to a message left with his legislative office.