JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri Baptist entity leaders remain watchful as legal challenges to a federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate work their way through the federal appeals courts.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandate, issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, applies to private employers with at least 100 workers – including ministries like the Missouri Baptist Convention’s three universities and the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home (MBCH).
However, a separate and similar mandate, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)/Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), applies in healthcare settings – impacting, as a result, the Baptist Homes & Healthcare Ministries.
The OSHA mandate requires that employees at these companies receive the COVID-19 vaccine. If employees refuse, they must wear masks and take COVID-19 tests weekly – or lose their jobs.
Missouri Baptist entity leaders worry the mandate, if enacted, could harm their employees and, ultimately, the ministries they lead and the people they serve.
Southwest Baptist University (SBU) President Rick Melson told The Pathway that the university “has already been negatively impacted by partnering organizations and businesses requiring students to be vaccinated for off-campus learning experiences.
“We expect to see further negative impacts to university employees and student withdraws if OSHA regulations are required,” he said, adding that SBU doesn’t require employees or students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“First and foremost,” Melson said, “Southwest Baptist University (SBU) desires for each employee to have the freedom to make personal health choices. Our leadership team at SBU is monitoring ongoing legal challenges and we are seeking expert counsel as we prepare and respond to OSHA regulations. While we hope litigation is successful in blocking current regulations, we will be prepared with a compliance plan in place that best meets our institution’s mission and values if litigation fails, and implementation is required.”
Legal challenges to the mandate
Multiple legal challenges have been raised to stop the OSHA mandate from taking effect on Jan. 4, 2022, and one court has already put a halt to the order – at least for the time being. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld its decision, Nov. 12, to put a stay on the mandate.
In a 20-page opinion, the court called the mandate “staggeringly overbroad” – “a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer that makes hardly any attempt to account for differences in workplaces (and workers).”
The mandate also “exposes” businesses “to severe financial risk if they refuse or fail to comply, and threatens to decimate their workforces (and business prospects) by forcing unwilling employees to take their shots, take their tests, or hit the road,” the opinion reads.
Affirming the court’s decision, Missouri Baptist University (MBU) President Keith Ross told The Pathway, “MBU opposes the federal vaccine mandate issued through OSHA and has no plans to require employee vaccination.
“We agree with the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals that the vaccine mandate is unconstitutional and an overreach of the federal government,” he added. “Providing guidance to employees and students rather than mandates is a better path forward and allows individuals to make their own personal health decisions. MBU encourages but does not require employee vaccination.”
Meanwhile, 11 states, including Missouri, filed suit in the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In his court filing, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt called the mandate “unconstitutional, unlawful, and unwise.”
Additionally, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asked the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, to block the mandate. Southern Seminary President Albert Mohler said, “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.”
Rulings from the 6th and 8th Circuit Courts of Appeals had not been announced at press time.
HHS/CMS mandate and the Baptist Homes
The decision from the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals and the petitions at the 6th and 8th Circuit Courts address directly the OSHA mandate – leaving open the question about the separate mandate from the HHS/CMS that applies in healthcare settings like the Baptist Homes.
However, a case filed Nov. 10th in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, challenges the HHS/CMS vaccine mandate. A ruling by the court was pending at press time.
“This healthcare mandate has been a front line issue for care facilities,” Rodney Harrison, president of the Baptist Homes, told The Pathway. “As of November, less than 60 percent of Missouri’s healthcare workers are vaccinated. The healthcare mandate requires all employees of CMS approved facilities to be in compliance by December 4, 2021.”
Meanwhile, Missouri remains under a state of emergency due to a shortage of health care workers, according to The Missouri Times.
Amid the challenges posed by this federal mandate, Harrison is looking to Scripture for guidance.
“Using the example of Paul, Baptist Homes & Healthcare Ministries has emphasized Romans 13:1-8, asking employees to submit to government authority out of their love for one another,” Harrison said. “At the same time, we are engaging our right of appeal, another example from the life and ministry of the apostle Paul. Baptist Homes has worked closely with our legal counsel to ensure our employees’ civil right to religious and medical exemptions are maintained.”