Vaccine Mandates: A Tale of Two Legal Battles
In August, a slew of healthcare groups gave their employees deadlines to take COVID-19 vaccines or face termination. Although these mandates on paper allowed for religious and medical exemptions, in multiple cases, when exemptions proved hard to come by, employees facing threats of termination resorted to lawsuits to hold onto their jobs.
How did these lawsuits turn out, and who eventually submitted to the will of the other: the healthcare group or the plaintiffs?
University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Health Systems: A Win for the Right to Medical Privacy
Earlier this month, the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health Systems, a state healthcare group, paused its COVID-19 vaccine mandate until further “federal guidance” about the Biden administration’s mandate for all businesses with more than 100 employees.
This pause in the mandate came about one week after UAB Health Systems received a letter from a conservative public-interest firm, Alabama Center for Law and Liberty (ACLL), threatening a lawsuit. The outcome of this letter, sent on September 10th, while a great victory, could only have been possible in the context of a recently passed bill, Senate Bill 267, which Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed into law in May of this year.
Ivey’s senate bill prohibited state entities from requiring vaccination or proof of vaccination “as a condition for receiving a government service or for entry into a government building.”
As a result of that measure, a state employee’s vaccination status became a private matter that, if disclosed, would result in criminal prosecution. That is precisely what happened when Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall warned health care providers to “immediately cease using the state immunization registry, known as ImmPRINT, to determine employees’ vaccination status” or face criminal prosecution.
ACLL President Matthew Clark also used this bill as justification for a possible injunction against UAB Health Systems, in a letter sent to that organization on September 10.
“As the Supreme Court of Alabama has recognized, UAB Hospital is a state-run hospital. Consequently, UAB Hospital may not require its employees to disclose whether they have been vaccinated or not.”
One week later, UAB Health Systems announced that, “facing the threat of lawsuit,” it was dropping the COVID-19 vaccination mandates and that they would “wait for federal guidance to ensure full compliance with federal law.”
Houston Methodist Hospital: Employees of Non-State Entities Are Out of Luck
Unfortunately, unlike UAB, Houston Methodist (HM) is not a state-affiliated hospital, and Texas law simply does not protect employees working for private businesses from forced vaccination as a condition of continued employment.
Looking back now, the bill Governor Greg Abbott signed in June does not have enough teeth. In June, Abbott signed into law a bill much like SB 267 in Alabama. Abbott’s measure prohibited state entities from creating vaccine passport requirements as a condition of employment and discouraged private businesses in Texas from requiring COVID-19 vaccine passports from customers, but the law does not impose any fines or penalties for its violation, and just like in Alabama, there is no measure restricting the ability of private businesses to require COVID-19 vaccines of their employees as a condition of employment.
Perhaps this is why former Houston Methodist employees’ case of wrongful termination was dismissed out of hand as “frivolous” by both the administration and U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes. The five-page ruling filed on June 12, 2021, in the Southern District of Texas makes the astonishing argument that former HM employee Jennifer Bridges’ opinion that the vaccine is experimental and dangerous is “irrelevant” to the lawsuit. She writes in her Order on Dismissal:
“Bridge argues that, if she is fired for refusing to be injected with a vaccine, she will be wrongfully terminated. Vaccine safety and efficacy are not considered in adjudicating this issue.”
So, if the safety of the vaccine is not in consideration in the adjudication process, according to Hughes, then what is? Bridges is not being asked by Houston Methodist to engage in criminal activity, says the judge. If she were, she would, of course, have the right to refuse, but the right to put into her body only what she deems healthy and good is not a right that Hughes’ federal court recognizes.
Alabama and Texas State Law are Cautionary Tales
Both of these legal battles show that, while government employees in states with strong anti-vaccine passport measures can hope to enjoy legal protection from mandates, non-state employees in those same states simply do not have that luxury. These anti-vaccine passport bills are a step in the right direction, but they do not go far enough. All citizens, not just those working for state entities, need strong measures in place that will protect their constitutional rights to medical privacy and to autonomy over their own bodies.
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