WASHINGTON – The United States Supreme Court upheld one federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate, while also halting another vaccine mandate in a decision released, Jan. 13. While the ruling was a blessing to many religious organizations across the nation, it may harm many healthcare ministries, including The Baptist Homes & Healthcare Ministries of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC).
Last fall, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a vaccine mandate that applied 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), as well as Southern Baptist seminaries.
However, a separate mandate, issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), applied in healthcare settings – impacting, as a result, the Baptist Homes.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a legal challenge to both mandates, Jan. 7, and ruled less than a week later. Their decision, according to Kansas City attorney Michael Whitehead, was mixed in its impact on Missouri Baptist ministries.
“There was good news and bad news in these decisions,” Whitehead, who serves as legal counsel for the MBC, said. “In the OSHA case, the good news was that the court halted enforcement of Biden’s vaccine mandate in all workplaces with 100-plus employees, finding it was an extreme overreach of federal authority, because Congress has never said in statutes that this workplace safety agency has broad public health powers. …
“Missouri Baptists can be grateful that the Court protected the constitutional rights and religious freedom of many Missouri workers and employers, including religious employers, who otherwise would have been ordered to take the jab or lose their job, regardless of religious conscience. Southern Seminary was a party to one of the cases, and numerous Missouri Baptist ministries and churches would have faced this legal coercion had the Court not halted enforcement of the mandate.”
“The bad news was in the CMS case,” Whitehead added. “Here the Court upheld the Biden vaccine mandate issued by CMS, which applied to almost all workers at facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid. The Court majority said that Congress had delegated broad powers to CMS to regulate healthcare firms who receive federal dollars through Medicare or Medicaid. The statutes do contain broad powers to protect the health of patients by regulating the conduct of providers, and those regulations may be interpreted broadly enough to include requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated in order to keep their jobs.”
The Baptist Homes, along with the MBC’s Christian Life Commission, filed an amicus brief in the lawsuit challenging the CMS mandate. Whitehead said that, according to the brief, “religious employees can be granted an exemption by the [religious] employer, but the employer cannot be granted an ‘exemption’ by the government agency.
“This puts the ministry employer the position of acting as an agent of law enforcement for the government, and allows the government to dictate or override job qualifications regarding a ministry position,” Whitehead said. The Baptist Homes, he added, “can comply with the CMS mandate for now, because employees who seek a religious or medical exemption can be reasonably accommodated, as the law requires. Still, some employees will quit rather than work in healthcare under this kind of regulatory control and domination.”
After the ruling, Baptist Homes President Rodney Harrison sent a written comment to The Pathway, “Baptist Homes & Healthcare supports the protection and wellbeing of those we serve as evidenced by resident vaccination rates of nearly 100% at every campus. However, ‘the state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind’ (Article XVII, Baptist Faith & Message 2000).
“Thus, the court’s CMS decision was disappointing as Baptist Homes & Healthcare Ministries is first and foremost a religious organization founded in the spirit of James 1:27. Aside from the medical and ethical concerns raised by the vaccination, the COVID-19 immunization was not a condition of employment for the vast majority of healthcare workers in Missouri. The [possibility] of losing one’s calling and career over the mandate was a concern worth fighting for, and is why we filed an amicus brief against the mandate with the court in December.
“With the court’s decision, full consideration will be granted to all Baptist Homes employees who request religious and medical exemption by the Jan. 27 deadline. What happens after the implementation of the CMS mandate is unknown. What is known is that God is on His throne.”
Whitehead added, “We should be concerned that (Justices) Roberts and Kavanaugh agreed that the OSHA case was extreme government over-reach, but the CMS mandate was a lawful exercise of executive power, affecting over 10 million health care workers. They were warned that many nursing homes will fail, in rural areas especially, because of staff resignations over the mandate. … Does this majority believe that, as long as Congress says it clearly enough, the federal administrative state can mandate it, even though states traditionally have the superior right to protect public health and use police powers to enforce their laws? A healthy view of federalism under our constitution would seem to counsel against both the OSHA and CMS mandates. They are examples of executive power run amok.”