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Illinois lawmakers set up votes on controversial abortion notification, ‘right of conscience’ laws

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Democratic lawmakers in the Illinois House and Senate on Tuesday set up potential votes this week on two lightning rod issues: A measure that would repeal a law requiring a parent to be notified when a minor seeks an abortion and one that seeks to prevent people from using religious or moral objections to skirt coronavirus vaccination requirements.

And with a new Illinois congressional map at the top of the to-do list for the fall session scheduled to end this week, Democrats indicated Tuesday that there will be at least a third revision of their proposed boundaries for the state’s new 17 U.S. House districts.

A Senate committee voted along party lines to send to the full chamber a measure that would repeal a 1995 law requiring a parent or other adult family member to be notified when someone under 18 is going to have an abortion.

Parental consent is not required under current law, and minors can ask a court to waive the notification requirement if they fear for their safety. But Democrats who support abortion rights are eager to secure Illinois’ place as a safe haven for those seeking an abortion as other statesrestrict access and seek to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

“What Illinois is saying, is continuing to say and is continuing to establish itself as is a beacon for individuals to have access to the rights that they deserve,” said the measure’s sponsor, Democratic state Sen. Elgie Sims of Chicago.

A vote on the Senate floor was expected as soon as Tuesday night, but there remained some opposition among the legislature’s majority Democrats, particularly in the House. Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker has expressed support for the proposal.

Opponents of repeal, largely Republican lawmakers, religious leaders and anti-abortion groups, have sought to frame the debate as one about parental rights rather than about abortion access.

GOP Sen. Jil Tracy of Quincy called the repeal proposal “illogical” and said it’s an example of Pritzker’s “radical agenda” that drives wedges between parents and their obligations to their children.

“Of all the human relationships, there’s none stronger than a relationship between parent and a child, and certainly while it lasts an entire lifetime, there is no better time and critical event in the minor years that child needs nurturing and support and counseling from their parents.” Tracy said at a news conference ahead of Tuesday’s committee vote.

A House committee, meanwhile, advanced a Pritzker-backed proposal to revise the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which also has met some resistance among the Democratic supermajority.

The law, in effect since 1998, was passed in large part to allow doctors, pharmacists and other health care workers to refrain from performing abortions, dispensing contraceptives or providing other services to which they have a moral or religious objection.

But it has been used in ongoing lawsuits to resist Pritzker’s COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates for teachers, health care workers and others.

A federal judge in Chicago is expected to rule Friday on a request to temporarily block state and city vaccine mandates, in part by citing the right of conscience law. A lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of 14 unnamed employees of Northshore University Health System also cites the law in arguing against the hospital system’s alleged refusal to grant religious exemptions to its vaccination requirement.

The measure, sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Robyn Gabel of Evanston, would specify that it is not a violation of the law for the state, an employer or another organization “to take any measures or impose any requirements … to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19 or any pathogens that result in COVID-19 or any of its subsequent iterations.”

The House Executive Committee sent the proposal to the full chamber on a 9-6 party-line vote.

Gabel had to assure Republican legislators that she wasn’t trying to change the law but clarify it so that the law can’t be applied in Illinois by people who use it to object to getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“There’s nothing in it that says it can be used for COVID, so we’re just saying it can’t be,” she said in a question-and-answer session with Republican Rep. Dan Brady of Bloomington.

“The law intends to make changes and that’s what has people very, very concerned,” Brady said.

Rep. Deanne Mazzochi, a Republican from Elmhurst, expressed concerns that people cannot refuse the vaccine for religious reasons under the amendment. Gabel tried to explain that the law doesn’t stop someone from invoking a federal religious exemption.

“Now you’re saying, ‘Oh, well we’re upset that people are trying to invoke their right of conscience.’ We’ve always let people invoke their right of conscience, particularly when it involves religious freedom exemptions at the state level,” Mazzochi told Gabel.

The committee also advanced a measure that would tweak a law Pritzker signed this summer, over objections from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, that will create a fully elected Chicago school board by 2027.

The new proposal, sent to the full House on a 9-6 committee vote, would remove a requirement that Chicago’s mayor get City Council approval for appointments of 10 board members and the board president when a partially elected, partially appointed board takes effect after the November 2024 election. The measure also specifies that the board positions will be unpaid.

Of all the issues before lawmakers this week, the most pressing is approving a new congressional map before candidates have to begin circulating nominating petitions in January.

State Rep. Elizabeth Hernandez, a Cicero Democrat who chairs the Illinois House redistricting panel, said, “we don’t have a final map,” when asked at a morning committee hearing about procedures to vote on a final plan. Another leading Democrat said privately that additional revisions are expected before the legislature votes.

Democrats unveiled their first plan Oct. 15 and a second version Saturday. The latest version creates the opportunity for a second Latino district in Illinois. It also pits Democratic U.S. Reps. Sean Casten of Downers Grove and Marie Newman against one another in a suburban district and sets up two potential matchups between Republican incumbents: Darren LaHood of Peoria against Adam Kinzinger of Channahon, and Mary Miller of Oakland against Mike Bost of Murphysboro.

The latest version is aimed at giving Illinois Democrats a 14-3 advantage over Republicans, compared to the current 13-5 edge that they hold. Illinois lost one seat due to a decline in population.

Democrats acknowledged that political considerations were taken into account in drafting the map, which is legal. But Republican state Rep. Tom Demmer of Dixon noted that “there are no witnesses from any Black or Latino advocacy groups testifying that these maps make them happy.”

“Perhaps the people who are happy with these maps are only Democratic incumbents, who were consulted in the creation and design of these maps,” Demmer said.

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