Tennessee Republican lawmakers warn schools not to push COVID-19 vaccine to students absent parental consent

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Jul. 22—NASHVILLE — After successfully pressuring Republican Gov. Bill Lee's administration and state health officials to back away from encouraging minors to seek coronavirus vaccines without parental permission, two top GOP lawmakers on Wednesday redirected their focus to Tennessee schools and universities.

"To anyone bullying, bribing, shaming or cajoling an individual into taking the vaccine, I strongly urge you to consult with your legal counsel for potential violations of federal law," asserted Senate Government Operations Committee Chairman Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, as he read from a joint statement with his House counterpart, Chairman John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge.

Democrats, who weren't allowed to speak, later charged there are no federal violations and criticized both Roberts and Ragan for not allowing them to speak during the hearing nor permitting physicians wanting to testify in support of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Robert's comments came in the wake of the panel's June meeting where Republicans skewered both Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey and Dr. Michelle "Shelley" Fiscus over the state's outreach to minors to get vaccinated. One lawmaker at that hearing, Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, discussed entertaining a motion to dissolve the state Department of Health and parcel its functions out to other agencies. Lee told reporters his administration would work through parents going forward.

Piercey later fired Fiscus, the state's vaccine chief, spurring a tsunami of state and national news coverage.

Fiscus' dismissal came after she cited to physicians and other health providers that a 34-year-old Tennessee Supreme Court ruling established a doctrine in which minors age 14 and older could seek treatments on their own if the health professionals felt they were mature enough to decide.

In a Times Free Press interview last week, Fiscus said she refused a request by the department's chief medical officer, Tim Jones, to resign. In firing her, Jones cited, among other things, poor evaluations. Fiscus later provided several recent years' worth of evaluations showing she received praise for her work with Jones having signed them.

Piercey was not present at Wednesday's meeting and had asked to be excused. She is on a long-planned vacation to Greece, Fiscus told the Times Free Press last week. Neither Roberts nor Ragan criticized Piercey.

The Lee administration itself spent state funds to reach out to minors, infuriating conservative Republicans. Tennessee has one of the nation's worst vaccination rates for COVID-19 and cases are rising here amid the new, more infectious delta variant taking hold in the state. Lee has backed away from the effort.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Vincent Dixie of Nashville issued a statement charging that "last month's debacle of a meeting resulted in the firing of a respected immunologist, embarrassed the state internationally and may have cost us the lives of numerous Tennesseans."

Dixie said he had expected a "robust debate" on those issues, but "instead, we got a back-door deal cut by the committee chairman that left no room to debate." Accusing Lee of a "total abdication of leadership," Dixie said, "this is why we're lagging way behind the rest of the country in vaccination."

Reading earlier from a statement during Wednesday's joint meeting of the House and Senate Government Operations Rules Subcommittee, Roberts said it is "not appropriate for a state employee to use their influence or authority to coerce students into receiving the vaccine."

Roberts cited as examples of "unacceptable behavior" a school football coach who tries to "coerce" a player "into being vaccinated by demanding that they wear masks and be tested weekly at their own expense until they are vaccinated."

A school band director "must not suspend marching band members from a half-time show" for not being vaccinated, Roberts said. A teacher "must not shame children by segregating the vaccinated children from the unvaccinated children," he added. And county-level health departments "must not pay or incentivize parents to vaccinate children."

And Roberts said entering a parent into a drawing for a car for vaccinating a child is "reprehensible, immoral and likely illegal."

Roberts also said county health departments should toe the line and charged the state's six independent county-run health departments are "failing to align with the [new] position of the Tennessee Department of Health on these issues."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-055o. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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