COLUMBIA — For five hours Thursday, the South Carolina House debated a proposal to prevent private companies in South Carolina from firing employees who refuse to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Then, just before members were set to vote, Republican leadership stripped that ban from the bill, leaving it only banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates for state and local government employees, contractors and public school students.

The bill passed 67-31 on Thursday and only needs a routine third reading Friday before being sent to the Senate. Senators have already gone home and appear unlikely to take the matter up before the regular 2022 session begins on Jan. 11.

The proposal requires employers to honor religious or medical exemptions and said a medical exemption can include a prior positive COVID-19 test, pregnancy or presence of coronavirus antibodies.

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The suddenly watered-down bill was a dizzying, but maybe not surprising end to a whirlwind 48 hours where the proposal went from a subcommittee to the House floor.

Republicans typically allow businesses in the state to have free rein and numerous groups, including the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, asked lawmakers to oppose the bill. Democrats spent hours championing businesses and the right of employers to determine requirements for their workers only to watch the debate change in an instant.

Democrats suggested Republicans were trying to provide cover for their most conservative members in party primaries by putting on a debate.

The amendment that altered the bill came when there was only six minutes of debate available on the proposal.

“Nobody knows what it is — that’s not a good way to govern,” said Rep. Russell Ott, a Democrat from St. Matthews.

Only two states — Montana and Tennessee — have passed similar bans for private businesses. Fewer than a dozen states have in place similar laws to what the South Carolina House ended up passing Thursday.

Before agreeing to strip out the ban on private businesses allowing vaccines, the bill’s primary supporter Rep. Stewart Jones argued that the proposal protected personal freedom.

“It’s a question of if anybody should be able to make you inject something into your body without your own will,” the Republican from Laurens said.

Democrats put up more than a dozen amendments during the day that were all rejected. They included proposals to force state employees who aren’t vaccinated to pay more in health insurance premiums, require hospitals to prioritize care for the vaccinated, make it a misdemeanor to possess a fake vaccine ID card and require unvaccinated people to pay all their medical costs out of pocket.

“If you choose to be stupid, pay the stupid price,” said Rep. Cezar McKnight, a Democrat from Kingstree.

Before the switch, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce and 27 other business associations from local chambers to trade associations of retailers, truckers, manufacturers and others said they were against the bill, calling it an unprecedented step against free enterprise.

“South Carolina has a long-held tradition of being a pro-business state that allows businesses to operate with minimal government intervention,” the groups said in their statement. “Employment decisions have been left to individual businesses in our state, subject to what each business believes is right for their operations.”

Upon being sent to the Senate, the bill likely can’t go anywhere until the General Assembly returns for its regular 2022 session on Jan. 11. Senators at the end of their redistricting special session Tuesday were wishing colleagues and staff Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and saying they would see them in January.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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