Medical experts and health-care advocacy groups warn legislation to expand Kentuckians' ability to opt out of vaccinations against infectious diseases is dangerous and unnecessary, especially during a pandemic.
Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, the majority whip, said he filed the bill because some of his constituents voiced concern the government might force them to get COVID-19 vaccinations, although there is no such federal mandate.
Rev. Kent Gilbert chair of the Justice and Advocacy Commission for the Kentucky Council of Churches and pastor of Union Church in Berea, noted churches have been assisting with COVID-19 vaccine logistics and working to build trust in communities.
He believes the bill could undercut those efforts.
"And in particular, in our African-American communities, churches have stepped up," Gilbert observed. "They have volunteered to be sites, they have volunteered to provide personnel, having the churches step in as agents of trust has been critical to making sure that everyone gets a chance to be as healthy as they can be."
The state already has medical and religious exemption laws on the books.
Some critics have pointed out the bill has broad, overreaching implications beyond COVID-19 that could result in fewer school-age kids being vaccinated in an epidemic of flu, measles, hepatitis or any other disease.
Emily Beauregard, executive director of Kentucky Voices for Health, sees it as a step backward for public health.
"This just undermines public trust in vaccinations, when we know that the COVID vaccines are safe and effective," Beauregard contended. "And more importantly, vaccination is the only way we're going to end the pandemic. If Senate Bill 8 becomes law, it will only prolong the pain of this pandemic and the spread of a deadly virus."
Gilbert added the pandemic has prompted congregations to think about the common good, and emphasizes that caring for neighbors is a religious obligation in Christian teaching.
"And so, when we think about that in terms of a vaccine, when we think about that in terms of pandemic, when we think about that in terms of wearing masks, it really comes down to practical expression of our already deeply embedded religious convictions, which is that helping others is one way that we connect to God," Gilbert explained.
According to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, more Americans are confident that coronavirus vaccines will keep their communities safe, with almost half of respondents saying they would get vaccinated.