Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls.

Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls.

Granite Falls representative joins lawsuit over House vax rule

Rep. Robert Sutherland objects to the COVID-19 vaccine because he had a severe reaction to a flu shot.

By Laurel Demkovich / The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA — Six Republicans in the Washington State House of Representatives, almost all unvaccinated, are suing Democratic leaders over the final plan for next year’s legislative session.

The House last week released its plan for the upcoming session that requires COVID-19 vaccines for members wishing to be on the floor and members of the public in the galleries.

The plan allows a limited number of vaccinated members to be on the floor, but the exact number will be “maximized based on needs for social distancing.” Unvaccinated members who wish to be in their on-campus offices during the session must receive a negative test three days a week. Members will not need access to the floor to vote on bills.

It was approved Thursday by the Executive Rules Committee. All four Democratic members voted in favor, and the three Republican members voted against it.

Six Republican House members, including Rep. Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls, are suing four Democratic House members and the chief clerk of the House. The other plaintiffs are Reps. Jim Walsh, Jesse Young, Rob Chase, Bob McCaslin and Jenny Graham. The lawsuit also includes citizens of each lawmaker’s district who say they are now no longer properly represented in the Legislature.

All the lawmakers but McCaslin are unvaccinated, according to the lawsuit.

Despite being fully vaccinated after receiving a dose of Johnson & Johnson in May, McCaslin said in court documents he refuses to show his vaccination card because it is “unconstitutional and unlawful.”

The other lawmakers say they are unvaccinated due to either medical or religious concerns.

For example, Graham is not vaccinated as she has already had COVID-19 and her family has a history of “adverse reactions to the COVID-19 injection,” according to the lawsuit.

Similarly, Chase said he is opposed to any of the currently available shots as he has already contracted COVID-19, and he sees “no reason to take the injection,” according to court documents. Experts say even people who have tested positive for COVID should get vaccinated to protect against new strains and waning immunity, though.

Both Walsh and Young object to the vaccine, citing religious reasons, while Sutherland objects because he had a severe adverse reaction to a flu shot.

The lawsuit alleges the House plan creates “separate and unequal classes of legislators” and by extension “separate and unequal classes of citizens” within Washington. It claims the plan violates the equal protection clause, the right to petition, the right to freedom of speech and laws regarding discrimination.

“Try as the Democrat majority might to keep us locked out, these new actions are a new level of abridgement of basic legal rights and constitutionally guaranteed representative access. What’s more, these rules are ethically deficient and morally corrupt in their attempt to segregate and divide,” the Republican lawmakers said in a statement.

Democratic House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, who is named in the suit, said the lawsuit is “without merit” and her focus remains on the work ahead in the 2022 session.

“Once again, certain members of the House Republican Caucus are choosing to engage in performative stunts for media attention rather than modeling public health best practices to keep fellow lawmakers, legislative staff and the public safe from a highly contagious virus,” she said. “The House operations plans allow all members to fully represent their constituents and fulfill the duties of their office in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.”

The House plan differs from the Senate’s plan, which was released earlier this month and allows members of the Senate who are unvaccinated to be on the floor. Every member of the Senate and staff, regardless of vaccination status, will be tested prior to floor action days.

As of Thursday, there were 20 of 98 House members who had not verified their vaccination status, House chief clerk Bernard Dean wrote in an email. He said there are likely a number of members who still plan to verify their vaccination status.

The only House staff members allowed on the floor will be security, those at the rostrum and information technology staff. All legislative staff are encouraged to work remotely.

A limited number of visitors will be allowed in the galleries of both the House and the Senate with required masking and social distancing. There is no vaccine requirement for those wishing to be in the Senate gallery, but members of the public wishing to be in the House gallery during floor action must either show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from within 72 hours prior.

The Senate estimated it would spend about $100,000 a month on additional private security to deal with logistics of getting the public in and out of the galleries. Dean did not have an exact number for what the House might spend on additional security, but it is looking into having it.

Committees in both the House and Senate will remain remote as they were last session. Members of the public can testify virtually and watch hearings and floor action on TVW.

Laurel Demkovich’s reporting is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community.

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