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: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 819597

Reported Deaths: 15406
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1147901924
Mobile725791338
Madison52306697
Shelby37597350
Baldwin37245552
Tuscaloosa35101612
Montgomery34106740
Lee23526246
Calhoun22225488
Morgan20941378
Etowah19825500
Marshall18361304
Houston17384412
St. Clair16054339
Cullman15443293
Limestone15343199
Elmore15241286
Lauderdale14302295
Talladega13836283
DeKalb12649261
Walker11202370
Blount10192176
Autauga10043148
Jackson9871184
Coffee9210191
Dale8897185
Colbert8860201
Tallapoosa7084198
Escambia6772134
Covington6712183
Chilton6641162
Russell636659
Franklin5959105
Chambers5607142
Marion5005127
Dallas4973200
Pike4795106
Clarke475584
Geneva4571127
Winston4516103
Lawrence4321117
Bibb425186
Barbour357776
Marengo338090
Monroe331464
Randolph329764
Butler326396
Pickens316284
Henry312666
Hale311388
Cherokee302860
Fayette292880
Washington251551
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245275
Clay243368
Macon234663
Lamar224147
Conecuh186153
Coosa180240
Lowndes175164
Wilcox168839
Bullock151644
Perry138840
Sumter133038
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
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