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.”