COVID-19 and the Law
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
Cases to Consider
The bread-and-butter of a lawyer's job is reading the law and explaining it. I'll try to do that now with a few cases. But before I do, a few things...
First, we're discussing COVID-19 as a topic of national news, but that is not how these cases are decided. Some of these cases involve broad constitutional challenges based on long-standing federal precedent. Other cases rely on state or local laws, or even private contracts. Courts in different "jurisdictions" (mainly different states or federal districts) may interpret the laws differently and need not bind another court.
Second, most of these cases are requests for an "injunction," or a court order instructing a party to do or not do something. In this situation, we often see plaintiffs (the party bringing the action) asking the court for an injunction telling the defendant, often a government entity or an employer, to not enforce mask or vaccine mandates. Moreover, since this is a relatively new issue in the legal system, many of the orders we see are "preliminary injunctions," or court orders to do or not do something for the duration of the lawsuit until the court can issue a final decision. Generally, this means a Judge has considered arguments and briefs of both parties and determined whether it is likely that the plaintiff will "succeed on the merits."
With that in mind, lets turn to State Police Association of Massachusetts v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The governor of Massachusetts issued an executive order requiring police officers, among others, be fully vaccinated. This case involved state labor laws, collective bargaining and contracts between the state and the union. The union wanted a preliminary injunction against the mandate until the terms could be fully negotiated, including reasonable accommodations. The state balked, upheld the mandate and threatened officers with discipline or termination. The judge denied the union's request, saying that the union failed to show that the mandate would cause irreparable harm, nor that a delay was in the public interest.
Think about the strength of that opinion. Officers claiming a reasonable accommodation could lose their job, but even that was not "irreparable harm." Moreover, the union represented thousands of officers with a notable percentage refusing the vaccine. Even facing a mass shortage of officers, the judge refused to find a mere delay was "in the public interest." Part of the complaint cited the religious beliefs of troopers, the most successful accommodation thus far, but even that was not enough.
Let's jump to Michigan where the outcome was much different. Dahl et al., v. The Board of Trustees of Western Michigan University. The athletic director at Western Michigan University issued a mandate that all athletes be vaccinated against COVID-19. Four female soccer players requested a reasonable accommodation for their personal religious beliefs. The school refused, arguing that a mandate was the only way to provide a safe environment for the other athletes.
If you were to read this case, it reads much differently than the Massachusetts case. This case focuses like a laser on the constitutional protections for religious freedom. There are no local concerns or obscure contract provisions to confuse the reader; this is a religious freedom case from top to bottom. As such, the opinion follows long-established precedent by upholding religious freedom and granting the players request for a "temporary restraining order" (much like a preliminary injunction).
Having discussed employment, I'll be moving into schools in the coming posts.
NOTICE: As always, these thoughts are the authors, alone. This post is a response to a general topic and is not legal advice for anyone's individual situation. All matters are unique and if you have a legal question I advice you seek out your own independent legal advice.
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