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Will Christian universities be forced to require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees?

Federal rules pushed by President Joe Biden clash with orders by governors in some states.

A legal battle over federal vaccine mandates could affect employees of larger universities associated with Churches of Christ.

Depending on the outcome of pending court action, those employees could be forced to get COVID-19 vaccinations or face weekly coronavirus testing and wearing masks in the workplace.

Related: Most Christians welcome the COVID-19 vaccines, but some are skeptical

The federal vaccine requirements, published last week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would include Christian universities with 100 or more employees. 

President Joe Biden announced the rules earlier this year, giving private businesses until Jan. 4 to document employee vaccinations.

But Republican governors in several states have signed orders prohibiting vaccine or mask mandates. Those governors include Greg Abbott of Texas, home to Abilene Christian University and Lubbock Christian University.  

5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans granted a stay on Saturday.

5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans granted a stay on Saturday.

On Saturday, in an unsigned, two-sentence opinion, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans granted a stay pending further action by the court. A stay prevents the rules from taking effect until court action resolves the matter.

ACU employs about 850 faculty and staff, not including adjuncts and student employees. Currently, the university requires the vaccine for international travel and strongly encourages it for all employees, according to Wendy Kilmer, ACU spokeswoman. ACU offers the vaccine through the medical clinic on campus at no charge

Kilmer said the university awaits clarification because of Abbott’s orders that conflict with the federal mandate.

Related: After difficult year, COVID-19 vaccines bring joy and hope

Similarly, Lubbock Christian University, with 410 employees including part-time staff, encourages all eligible persons to receive the vaccine.

While LCU’s leadership understands the courts may ultimately determine whether the orders are valid and enforceable, “we are Romans 13 people and will do our best to comply with the law, while always maintaining a keen focus on our mission of Christian education,” university spokesman Erin Drumright said.

In Nebraska, York College spokeswoman Eryn Conyers cited the objections of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts and said no decisions had been made regarding the federal mandate.

Eryn Conyers

Eryn Conyers

We also have to take into consideration what the Nebraska governor decides,” Conyers said. “He is currently against the federal mandate.”

Nebraska is one of 11 states that have filed a lawsuit opposing the mandates in the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City encourages but does not require employee vaccinations.

However, Steven Eck, chief legal counsel, said Oklahoma Christian “will comply with the OSHA temporary emergency standards when the standard is released.” 

Terry Winn, Oklahoma Christian’s chief human resources officer, said “OC employees have a right to a workplace that is free of known hazards, and we recognize OSHA’s authority and important role in helping employers provide a safe and healthy work environment. The COVID-related regulations align with our community’s commitment to the scriptural principle to love our neighbors.”

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and state Attorney General John O’Connor filed a lawsuit opposing the mandates in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma the day before the rules were published.

Brittany Bedford, a senior nursing student at Oklahoma Christian University, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a member of the campus community.

Brittany Bedford, then a senior nursing student at Oklahoma Christian University, administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a member of the campus community earlier this year.

Oklahoma was also one of seven states to file a petition for review of the mandate in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Tennessee, home of Lipscomb University in Nashville and Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, was also a party to that suit.

Lipscomb, which has 838 employees, does not require the vaccine but highly encourages it according to spokeswoman Kim Chaudoin.  She said, “It is too soon to know” whether rules will be changed because state and federal mandates and laws still being discussed in the state legislature.

Rebecca Burylo, spokeswoman at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Ala., said its human resources team is reviewing implications of the emergency rules and formulating guidelines.

Since we are not mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for our employees,” Burylo said, “the testing option will be available for those who choose not to be vaccinated. Legal challenges to the mandate are still expected.”

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed an Oct. 25 executive order against COVID-19 vaccine mandates from the federal government. She announced Oct. 30 that Alabama would join seven other states in a lawsuit filed in Georgia challenging federal mandates. Last May, Alabama lawmakers passed Senate Bill 267 banning the release of vaccine records to the federal government. 

Florida College in Temple Terrace, Fla., has 136 employees. Academic Dean John Weaver could not be reached immediately for comment. According to its website, the college does not require the vaccine but asks individuals to be responsible for their own wellness, adding, “(V)accination is still the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” The state of Florida has filed a suit seeking to block the mandates in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

Harding University in Searcy, Ark., did not reply to a request for comment for this story, but Arkansas is among the 11 states in the 8th Circuit suit.

Freed-Hardeman and Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., also did not reply to a request for comment.

Related: An open letter to fellow Christians: Please get the COVID-19 vaccine

Southwestern Christian University, also in Texas, has fewer than 100 employees and thus is not subject to the rules. Crowley’s Ridge College in Paragould, Ark., and Ohio Valley University in Vienna, W.Va., also have fewer than 100 employees.

Plaintiffs in cases currently in federal district and circuit courts include religious and secular employers. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Asbury Theological Seminary, both located in Kentucky, filed a petition for review in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court. In statements to the media, presidents of both institutions have alleged that the mandates violate religious freedom.

In a statement on the Asbury website, President Timothy C. Tennent said, “Asbury Seminary strongly affirms vaccines and encourages every single member of our community (who is able) to receive a vaccine. But our Trustees believe our personal medical decisions are private, and we will not be deputized by the state to divide our community.”

Numerous other cases are working their way through the courts, some a direct response to the federal mandates and others opposing municipal, state or employer mandates. Those in the latter category have largely been rejected by lower courts, and the Supreme Court has declined to take appeals, though the status of religious objections has not been clarified in all cases. 

CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle correspondent who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. In retirement, she is enjoying freelance writing and consulting, especially with churches. Contact her at [email protected].

Filed under: Christian higher education coronavirus and church covid Covid and church COVID-19 federal vaccine mandates National Partners religious freedom Top Stories vaccinations

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