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Supreme Court halts COVID-19 vaccine rule for US businesses

FILE - This artist sketch depicts lawyer Scott Keller standing to argue on behalf of more than two dozen business groups seeking an immediate order from the Supreme Court to halt a Biden administration order to impose a vaccine-or-testing requirement on the nation's large employers during the COVID-19 pandemic, at the Supreme Court in Washington, Jan. 7, 2022. (Dana Verkouteren via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — In a decision released today (Jan. 13), the Supreme Court has stopped the Biden administration from enforcing a requirement that employees at large businesses be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S.

The court’s conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary filed a petition in November to block enforcement of the mandate. SBTS President Albert Mohler expressed his approval of the decision.

“We are very thankful for this ruling by the United States Supreme Court,” Mohler told Baptist Press. “This is a vindication of our cause from the very beginning. The issue here is not the vaccine, but the attempt by the Biden administration to turn employers, including religious employers, into extensions of the administrative state. It was vital that the Supreme Court preclude a federal agency such as OSHA from coercing religious employers into violating their conscience and that of employees who may be divided over the question of vaccines on convictional grounds. This is a victory for the United States Constitution, for the rule of law, and for religious liberty, and for that I am very thankful. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary entered into legal action against the Biden administration as an act of conscience, conviction, and constitutional concern, and we are very thankful for the court’s announcement today.”

The seminary was represented in the petition by Alliance Defending Freedom. ADF’s Senior Counsel Ryan Bangert told Baptist Press the Supreme Court had “correctly concluded that the federal administrative state has no authority to treat unvaccinated employees like workplace hazards and to compel employers to carry out the government’s unlawful national vaccine mandate.

“The Biden administration’s mandate would have a profoundly negative effect on those employers and the 80 million American workers who are affected, and that is why the Supreme Court was right to immediately halt its enforcement. Sadly, mandating vaccines through an OSHA emergency rule is yet another example of government overreach.”

In dissent, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.

When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harbored doubts that it could withstand them. The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and for private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.

Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.

The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority. The mandate covers virtually all health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It potentially affects 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.

“The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have,” the court wrote in an unsigned opinion, saying the “latter principle governs” in the healthcare cases.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that the case was about whether the administration has the authority “to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo.” He said the administration hadn’t shown convincingly that Congress gave it that authority.

Brent Leatherwood, acting president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told Baptist Press in a statement that “as any student of American civics will tell you, every two years, we cast ballots to determine who should represent us in Congress––the legislative arm of our federal government that is tasked with establishing policies of national interest. This is a simple rule of our constitutional system and it is where the U.S. Supreme Court grounded today’s decision on the OSHA mandate. The Court rightly decided the rule was far too broad and vast in its reach to be developed by an agency in the Executive Branch. The Court did not deny more targeted regulations could be utilized in certain settings, which is why it allowed the [U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] requirement to move forward in health care facilities. Though the goal of achieving a higher vaccination rate is proper and warranted, ultimately, a policy of this magnitude requires Congress to speak and, thus far, it has been silent.”

Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett signed onto Thomas’ opinion. Alito wrote a separate dissent that the other three conservatives also joined.

Decisions by federal appeals courts in New Orleans and St. Louis had blocked the mandate in about half the states. The administration already was taking steps to enforce it elsewhere.

More than 208 million Americans, 62.7 percent of the population, are fully vaccinated, and more than a third of those have received booster shots, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. All nine justices have gotten booster shots.

The justices heard arguments on the challenges last week. Their questions then hinted at the split verdict.

A separate vaccine mandate for federal contractors, on hold after lower courts blocked it, has not been considered by the Supreme Court.

From The Associated Press. May not be republished. AP writer Zeke Miller contributed to this report. With reporting from Jonathan Howe, vice president of communications for the SBC Executive Committee.

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  • Mark Sherman

    Mark Sherman is a writer for The  Associated Press. May not be republished.

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