What just happened?

On Thursday, the Supreme Court blocked a COVID-19 vaccination mandate by President Biden’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (In a related case, the Court has temporarily allowed similar mandates enacted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] that affect the staff of many types of Medicare and Medicaid health-care providers.)

The OSHA mandate, which affected about 84 million Americans, will remain on hold pending legal challenges to the rule in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

What is OSHA?

OSHA, part of the United States Department of Labor, was created by Congress in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The purpose of OSHA is to “ensure safe and healthful working conditions for workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” OSHA regulations apply to most private sector employers and their workers.

What was the OSHA vaccination mandate?

Last November, the Biden administration issued an emergency temporary standard (ETS) to “protect unvaccinated employees of large employers (100 or more employees) from the risk of contracting COVID-19 by strongly encouraging vaccination.” The rule required that employers of large companies 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.”

The rule applied to all employers with 100 or more employees.

Did the mandate include a religious exemption?

The rule included exemptions for employees in three categories: (1) those for whom a vaccine is medically contraindicated, (2) those for whom medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination, or (3) those 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.

However, as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has pointed out,

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 rule doesn’t offer any guidance for how to structure exemptions for objectors who have sincerely held religious beliefs.

Why was the rule struck down by the Supreme Court?

The rule was blocked because the majority of the justices believe OSHA had overstepped its legitimate statutory authority.

The majority opinion notes, “The [Labor] Secretary has ordered 84 million Americans to either obtain a COVID–19 vaccine or undergo weekly medical testing at their own expense. This is no ‘everyday exercise of federal power.’ It is instead a significant encroachment into the lives—and health—of a vast number of employees.”

The ruling points out that the OSHA is only empowered to set workplace safety standards that concern “occupational” hazards, not broad public health measures. “Although COVID–19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most,” said the Court. “COVID–19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases.”

“Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life—simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock—would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization,” they added.

The decision was 6–3, with the Court’s three liberal justices—Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan—dissenting.

Why does this ruling matter to Christians?

Numerous employers and workers at Christian organizations, including those who support vaccinations against COVID, opposed the mandate as an illegitimate use of government power over religious institutions. Two theological seminaries in Kentucky—The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary—even sued the Biden administration, asking the courts to block the mandate as unlawful.

“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,” said Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary. “This institution exists for the purpose of educating ministers for churches. This seminary must not be forced to stand in for the government in investigating the private health decisions of our faculty and employees in a matter involving legitimate religious concerns.”