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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Two weeks ago, Springfield legislators played fast and loose with word meanings while debating whether to repeal religious protections for those resisting coronavirus vaccinations.

Evanston Democratic State Rep. Robyn Gabel stated time and again that her proposal to repeal the statutory protection was really just an effort to clarify the original legislation’s intent.

By last week, the skittishness of Gabel and her colleagues had spread to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who signed the repeal into law.

A Pritzker news release stated that “at the request of the attorney general (Kwame Raoul), Gov. J.B. Pritzker today signed S.B. 1169 into law, clarifying the intent of the Health Care Right of Conscience Act so that it cannot be abused or misinterpreted to jeopardize workplace safety.”

Actually, Pritzker proved twice as skittish as legislators. He not only claimed the repeal he signed into law is a mere clarification of existing law but contended he signed the bill “at the request of the attorney general.”

So those who remember Pritzker complaining bitterly a month ago about vaccine skeptics relying on state law as protection from forced vaccinations should forget about it.

All people need to know now is that Pritzker signed the bill as a favor to the attorney general. Right?

Actually, that’s 100 percent wrong. The dubious language employed by legislators and the Raoul buffer embraced by Pritzker clearly show that the powers-that-be aren’t afraid to be heavy-handed but are nervous about being seen being heavy-handed.

They feel mandated vaccinations are the right way to go and that those who oppose them must be coerced into compliance. So do a lot of other people who resent the refuseniks for refusing to go with the flow on vaccination mandates.

But here’s the issue. When politicians use a rhetorical curtain to disguise what they’re doing, it’s important the curtain be pulled back.

The Health Care Right of Conscience Act has been on the books since 1977. It was passed to prevent medical workers from being forced to violate their religious beliefs by being required to participate, however marginally, in abortions or abortion-related matters.

The coronavirus was just a gleam in Pritzker’s eye when the 1977 bill passed. But while motivated solely by moral opposition to abortion, the law did not limit its protections solely to abortion.

The law states it “shall be unlawful” for individuals associated with public or private institutions “to discriminate against any person” because of that person’s “conscientious refusal to receive” any particular form of health care.

Both state and federal courts have ruled that the statute’s meaning is crystal clear. Their ruling made it clear that judges have no need to rely on other methods, like revisiting legislative debate, to determine the legislation’s intent.

It’s because the statute’s protections are so clear that Pritzker and legislators felt compelled to repeal protections that could be invoked by coronavirus skeptics.

The good news is that, despite the consistent effort by proponents to misrepresent the issue, major news outlets were not fooled.

John O’Connor of The Associated Press reported that Pritzker “signed into law a change to the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act that would allow those who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine to potentially face repercussions.”

A Chicago Tribune headline mistakenly described Pritzker’s action as “closing a loophole.” But Trib reporter Jeremy Gorner wrote that the governor “signed a controversial measure aimed at preventing people from using a decades-old law to avoid COVID-19 vaccination mandates by citing moral or religious objections.”

Pritzker & Co. will continue to embrace truth-speak, because they do not want to be perceived as pushing people around.

But repealing a statutory protection is not clarifying a statutory protection, and everyone not pretending otherwise knows it.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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