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Explainer: Supreme Court hears challenges to Biden administration’s vaccine mandates

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January 7, 2022

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in emergency requests challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates. The justices have declined to hear oral arguments in cases regarding state-level mandates, and this is the first case related to vaccine mandates they have agreed to hear. 

What are the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates?

There are two vaccine mandates that the Biden administration has issued — one dealing with large employers and the other dealing with healthcare workers. 

OSHA vaccine mandate

On Nov. 4, the Biden administration, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), issued a COVID-19 Vaccination and Testing Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS). The stated purpose of this rule is “to protect unvaccinated employees of large employers (100 or more employees) from the risk of contracting COVID-19 by strongly encouraging vaccination.” The intent to issue this rule was announced in September by President Biden, but the text of the rule was issued in November.

The rule states that “covered employers must develop, implement, and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, with an exception for employers that instead adopt a policy requiring employees to either get vaccinated or elect to undergo regular COVID-19 testing and wear a face covering at work in lieu of vaccination.”

In short, the rule requires employers with 100 or more employees to submit their employees to weekly COVID-19 testing and masking requirements, or the employees can opt to receive one of the three vaccines that are approved or authorized for the prevention of COVID-19 in the U.S.: Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson.

The OSHA rule will affect approximately 84 million private-sector workers across the country, including some 31 million who are believed to be unvaccinated.

It’s important to note that this rule doesn’t require an employee to receive the vaccine, but if they choose not to be vaccinated, they must undergo testing every week. 

CMS vaccine mandate

The second vaccination mandate is issued from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and requires COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in most healthcare settings that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, including but not limited to hospitals, dialysis facilities, ambulatory surgical settings, and home health agencies. 

The key difference between the two mandates is that the OSHA mandate allows weekly testing as an alternative to receiving the vaccine.

Are there religious exemptions?

There are three exemptions listed in the OSHA rule:

  1. For whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated;
  2. For whom medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination; or
  3. Who are legally entitled to a reasonable accommodation under federal civil rights laws because they have a disability or sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances that conflict with the vaccination requirement.

While there are stated religious liberty exemptions, it is concerning that the ETS requires each covered employer to establish and implement their own written policy regarding religious exemptions. With this rule, each employer is effectively tasked with creating their own policies, and there will be thousands of different policies throughout the country, leading to inconsistent application and confusion. The proposed OSHA rule doesn’t offer any guidance for how to structure exemptions for objectors who have sincerely held religious beliefs.

The CMS rule also allows for religious exemptions and states that “employers have the flexibility to establish their own processes and procedures, including forms.” It also states, “we point to The Safer Federal Workforce Task Force’s ‘request for a religious exception to the COVID–19 vaccination requirement’ template as an example.”

How did these cases reach the Supreme Court?

After the OHSA mandate was issued, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ordered a stay of the vaccine mandate and halted enforcement. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, 

“ . . . multiple lawsuits were filed all over the country, allowing the government to seek a consolidation and transfer to a randomly designated court. The 6th Circuit was selected to handle the consolidated OSHA case. The three-judge panel for the 6th Circuit lifted the stay previously issued by the 5th Circuit that had halted enforcement of the vaccine mandate for private employers with 100 or more employees. In a separate order only days before, a group of eight judges on the 6th Circuit indicated their view that the mandate is unlawful.”

OSHA has stated that it will be exercising “enforcement discretion with respect to the compliance dates of the ETS. To provide employers with sufficient time to come into compliance, OSHA will not issue citations for noncompliance with any requirements of the ETS before January 10 and will not issue citations for noncompliance with the standard’s testing requirements before February 9, so long as an employer is exercising reasonable, good faith efforts to come into compliance with the standard.”

Following decisions by the Court of Appeals for the 5th, 8th, and 11th Circuit, the United States District Court and the Northern District of Texas, the CMS vaccine requirement is preliminary enjoined in 25 states. CMS announced that those states are not required to comply, pending further developments in litigation. However, in the states and the District of Columbia, the rule will be implemented and enforced, following a modified timeline. The deadline for implementing Phase 1 is Jan, 27, 2022, and the deadline for Phase 2 implementation is Feb. 28, 2022.

How does this affect SBC entities?

On Nov. 5, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) and Asbury Theological Seminary filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit to challenge the OSHA rule. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of SBTS, stated that “it is unacceptable for the government to force religious institutions to become coercive extensions of state power. We have no choice but to push back against this intrusion of the government into matters of conscience and religious conviction.”

According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, 

“ . . . the lawsuit The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary v. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, alleges that the Biden administration lacks jurisdiction to dictate employment practices to religious institutions, lacks constitutional and statutory authority to issue the employer mandate, and that the mandate failed to meet the required procedural hurdles. In short, the federal government cannot coerce individuals nationwide to undergo medical treatment, and it lacks authority to conscript employers to compel that result.”

The Southern Seminary lawsuit has been consolidated with multiple other cases that now make up the OSHA case SCOTUS is hearing today, with the Alliance Defending Freedom representing the groups.

Additionally, the CMS vaccine mandates impacts faith-based organizations such as the Baptist Homes and Healthcare Ministries, Christian ministries that provide independent living and skilled nursing care to the ageist and elderly.  

Is this the proper role of the government?

These rules raise questions and concerns about limits of government regulation both in terms of public health and safety measures. While governments do have heightened responsibilities during a public health crisis, the state must not use public health emergencies to overstep and exert authority that the Constitution has not entrusted it with.

How will the ERLC engage?

The OSHA interim final rule is open for public comments through Jan. 19, 2022. As we have done on previous occasions with proposed rules affecting churches and religious organizations, the ERLC will submit public comments expressing concerns with the scope of the regulation on behalf of our convention of churches. 

How should Christians think about this?

The ERLC has emphatically stated since the beginning of this public health challenge that government officials should opt for providing guidance over mandates, while at the same time seeking to uphold the free exercise of religion. Elected officials and local health experts should be actively partnering with pastors and churches to serve local communities as this pandemic rages on.

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik serves as the Director of Public Policy with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission in the Washington, D.C. office. Previously, she worked on Capitol Hill on pro-life policies, domestic and international religious freedom, adoption, and foster care issues. Chelsea has been published at the Wall Street Journal, … Read More