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Attorney General: Colleges can't fine unvaccinated students

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall's office said a college's plan to reimburse $500 to vaccinated students likely runs against a new state law banning so-called vaccine passports.

Posted: Aug 4, 2021 3:07 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — To combat COVID-19 on campus, Birmingham-Southern College said all students would be required to undergo regular testing at the school at a cost of $500, but that vaccinated students could skip that hassle and also get their money back.

The Alabama attorney general's office on Tuesday suggested such policies run afoul of Alabama's new law banning so-called vaccine passports, saying it could be “in effect a mandate to be vaccinated and to provide proof thereof." Universities also cannot require students to prove vaccination status before returning to campus, the guidance stated.

Alabama has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation and Gov. Kay Ivey and other state officials have expressed mounting frustration over people refusing the vaccine. But the state also has taken steps to protect those who choose not to get vaccinated.

Vaccine mandates have become tricky territory as colleges and other institutions try to enact safety measures to protect against the rapidly spreading delta variant at the same time some Republican states try to limit, or ban, mandates, arguing they infringe on personal liberty and choice.

A spokeswoman for Birmingham-Southern did not immediately return an email seeking comment, but last week Amy Bickers Abeyta, assistant vice president of communications, said the college is not requiring students to provide proof of vaccination in order to attend classes. Abeyta added that the college is offering incentives to students who get the COVID vaccine. Those include “an early move-in date and a $500 rebate toward COVID testing fees,” she said.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall's office, while not naming any specific institution, issued a document stating that colleges can't require students to prove vaccination status. The document also says requiring fees of the unvaccinated is “constructively requiring proof of vaccination.”

Alabama lawmakers this spring approved legislation, which Ivey signed into law, banning “vaccine passports.” The law prohibits universities from requiring students to get a COVID-19 vaccination and prohibits businesses from refusing to provide goods, services or entry to someone based on their immunization status or lack of immunization documentation.

“In other words, no government, school, or business in Alabama may demand that a constituent, student, or customer, respectively, be vaccinated for COVID-19 or show proof of his or her vaccination for COVID-19,” Marshall’s office wrote in its initial public guidance.

The law does not apply to private businesses, which may choose to require employees to get vaccinated. Some have done so.

During legislative debate on the bill, some House Democrats said Republicans were putting politics over people and hindering the state's effort to boost vaccinations.

“It is a mixed message,” said Rep. Merika Coleman, a Democratic legislator who lost five members of her extended family to COVID-19 before the vaccine became available.

“We can’t on one hand say go get vaccinated and then on the other ban people from having the ability to require that,” Coleman said.

Coleman said she did applaud the governor's effort to urge people to get vaccinated. Alabama has the lowest percentage of people, 34.5%, who are fully vaccinated, and ranks fifth-lowest, at 43.9%, for the number of people who have received at least one vaccine dose, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Asked if the law was a hindrance to the state’ pandemic response, Dr. Scott Harris, Alabama’s state health officer, said only, “We play the hand we’re dealt.”

“The Legislature has in its power to create these rules," Harris said. "They don’t feel that we ought to be asking about vaccination status so we’re just trying to do our best to take care of people any way we can.”

Phil Williams, a former state senator who now works for the conservative policy group Alabama Policy Institute, spoke out against Birmingham-Southern's policy, saying it creates a “caste system” of students.

Williams said he is not against vaccinations but is against mandates.

"People should make a well-reasoned decision based on their own research and beliefs,” Williams said.

When asked if the law discourages vaccinations, an Ivey spokeswoman reiterated that people should voluntarily get vaccinated.

Last month, Ivey herself remarked that people “are supposed to have common sense.”

“But it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks, not the regular folks,” she said. “It’s the unvaccinated folks that are letting us down.”

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 498560

Reported Deaths: 9939
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34150535
DeSoto31916399
Hinds31878624
Jackson24352379
Rankin21928388
Lee15450235
Madison14547279
Jones13789241
Forrest13428250
Lauderdale11944315
Lowndes10966185
Lamar10491135
Pearl River9454237
Lafayette8462138
Hancock7703126
Washington7371157
Oktibbeha7118130
Monroe6740174
Warren6656176
Pontotoc6620102
Neshoba6613206
Panola6466131
Marshall6398132
Bolivar6268146
Union596794
Pike5794152
Alcorn5646101
Lincoln5421134
George494979
Scott471198
Tippah466081
Prentiss464881
Leflore4631144
Itawamba4605105
Adams4577119
Tate4553109
Copiah445692
Simpson4423116
Yazoo440386
Wayne438572
Covington427894
Marion4222107
Sunflower4217104
Coahoma4127104
Leake407687
Newton381079
Grenada3700108
Stone358764
Tishomingo358091
Attala330589
Jasper328565
Winston313491
Clay306775
Chickasaw297867
Clarke290694
Calhoun278145
Holmes267287
Smith262450
Yalobusha232847
Tallahatchie225851
Walthall217763
Greene216048
Lawrence211440
Perry204855
Amite204055
Webster201845
Noxubee185940
Montgomery179356
Jefferson Davis170942
Carroll168238
Tunica159039
Benton147538
Kemper141341
Choctaw133026
Claiborne131637
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106328
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 814363

Reported Deaths: 15179
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1141131910
Mobile722941323
Madison52048686
Shelby37315341
Baldwin37098540
Tuscaloosa34973599
Montgomery33996725
Lee23158240
Calhoun22168470
Morgan20675372
Etowah19770496
Marshall18258300
Houston17314405
St. Clair15924337
Cullman15333290
Limestone15239198
Elmore15095284
Lauderdale14163294
Talladega13728272
DeKalb12575259
Walker11096366
Blount10104174
Autauga9904146
Jackson9795180
Coffee9182189
Dale8866181
Colbert8794200
Tallapoosa7045195
Escambia6747127
Covington6688179
Chilton6595160
Russell626358
Franklin5936105
Chambers5562142
Marion4960126
Dallas4897199
Clarke473482
Pike4721105
Geneva4564126
Winston4478101
Lawrence4269117
Bibb421786
Barbour356075
Marengo334189
Monroe330662
Randolph327763
Butler324894
Pickens314082
Henry311265
Hale309487
Cherokee300557
Fayette291079
Washington251151
Cleburne247058
Crenshaw243775
Clay240867
Macon230762
Lamar218146
Conecuh185752
Coosa179038
Lowndes174161
Wilcox167838
Bullock151744
Perry138040
Sumter131138
Greene125844
Choctaw87027
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