Religious Liberty Watch: The Fifth Circuit Grants Stay Of OSHA Vaccine Mandate

…The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created OSHA, was enacted by Congress to assure Americans “safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.” See 29 U.S.C. § 651 (statement of findings and declaration of purpose and policy). It was not—and likely could not be, under the Commerce Clause and nondelegation doctrine—intended to authorize a workplace safety administration in the deep recesses of the federal bureaucracy to make sweeping pronouncements on matters of public health affecting every member of society in the profoundest of ways.

On the dubious assumption that the Mandate does pass constitutional muster—which we need not decide today—it is nonetheless fatally flawed on its own terms. Indeed, the Mandate’s strained prescriptions combine to make it the rare government pronouncement that is both overinclusive (applying to employers and employees in virtually all industries and workplaces in America, with little attempt to account for the obvious differences between the risks facing, say, a security guard on a lonely night shift, and a meatpacker working shoulder to shoulder in a cramped warehouse) and underinclusive (purporting to save employees with 99 or more coworkers from a “grave danger” in the workplace, while making no attempt to shield employees with 98 or fewer coworkers from the very same threat). The Mandate’s stated impetus—a purported “emergency” that the entire globe has now endured for nearly two years,10 and which OSHA itself spent nearly two months responding to—is unavailing as well. And its promulgation grossly exceeds OSHA’s statutory authority.

After the President voiced his displeasure with the country’s vaccination rate in September, the Administration pored over the U.S. Code in search of authority, or a “work-around,” for imposing a national vaccine mandate. The vehicle it landed on was an OSHA ETS. The statute empowering OSHA allows OSHA to bypass typical notice-and-comment proceedings for six months by providing “for an emergency temporary standard to take immediate effect upon publication in the Federal Register” if it “determines (A) that employees are exposed to grave danger from exposure to substances or agents determined to be toxic or physically harmful or from new hazards, and (B) that such emergency standard is necessary to protect employees from such danger.” 29 U.S.C. § 655(c)(1).

As the name suggests, emergency temporary standards “are an ‘unusual response’ to ‘exceptional circumstances.’” Int’l Chem. Workers, 830 F.2d at 371 (quoting Pub. Citizen Health Rsch. Grp. v. Auchter, 702 F.2d 1150, 1155 (D.C. Cir. 1983)). Thus, courts have uniformly observed that OSHA’s authority to establish emergency temporary standards under § 655(c) “is an ‘extraordinary power’ that is to be ‘delicately exercised’ in only certain ‘limited situations.’” Id. at 370 (quoting Pub. Citizen, 702 F.2d at 1155).

But the Mandate at issue here is anything but a “delicate[] exercise[]” of this “extraordinary power.” Cf. Pub. Citizen, 702 F.2d at 1155. Quite the opposite, rather than a delicately handled scalpel, the Mandate is a one-size-fits-all sledgehammer that makes hardly any attempt to account for differences in workplaces (and workers) that have more than a little bearing on workers’ varying degrees of susceptibility to the supposedly “grave danger” the Mandate purports to address.

…Equally problematic, however, is that it remains unclear that COVID-19—however tragic and devastating the pandemic has been—poses the kind of grave danger § 655(c)(1) contemplates.

…The Administration’s prior statements in this regard further belie the notion that COVID-19 poses the kind of emergency that allows OSHA to take the extreme measure of an ETS.

…We next consider the necessity of the Mandate. The Mandate is staggeringly overbroad. Applying to 2 out of 3 private-sector employees in America, in workplaces as diverse as the country itself, the Mandate fails to consider what is perhaps the most salient fact of all: the ongoing threat of COVID-19 is more dangerous to some employees than to other employees. All else equal, a 28 year-old trucker spending the bulk of his workday in the solitude of his cab is simply less vulnerable to COVID-19 than a 62 year-old prison janitor. Likewise, a naturally immune unvaccinated worker is presumably at less risk than an unvaccinated worker who has never had the virus. The list goes on, but one constant remains—the Mandate fails almost completely to address, or even respond to, much of this reality and common sense.

…At the same time, the Mandate is also underinclusive. The most vulnerable worker in America draws no protection from the Mandate if his company employs 99 workers or fewer. The reason why? Because, as even OSHA admits, companies of 100 or more employers will be better able to administer (and sustain) the Mandate. See 86 Fed. Reg. 61,402, 61,403 (“OSHA seeks information about the ability of employers with fewer than 100 employees to implement COVID-19 vaccination and/or testing programs.”). That may be true. But this kind of thinking belies the premise that any of this is truly an emergency. Indeed, underinclusiveness of this sort is often regarded as a telltale sign that the government’s interest in enacting a liberty-restraining pronouncement is not in fact “compelling.” Cf. Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520, 542–46 (1993) (city’s ban on religious animal sacrifice but corresponding allowance of other activities similarly endangering public health belied its purportedly “compelling” interest in safe animal disposal practices). The underinclusive nature of the Mandate implies that the Mandate’s true purpose is not to enhance workplace safety, but instead to ramp up vaccine uptake by any means necessary.

…It lastly bears noting that the Mandate raises serious constitutional concerns that either make it more likely that the petitioners will succeed on the merits, or at least counsel against adopting OSHA’s broad reading of § 655(c) as a matter of statutory interpretation.

…First, the Mandate likely exceeds the federal government’s authority under the Commerce Clause because it regulates noneconomic inactivity that falls squarely within the States’ police power.

…Second, concerns over separation of powers principles cast doubt over the Mandate’s assertion of virtually unlimited power to control individual conduct under the guise of a workplace regulation.

…It is clear that a denial of the petitioners’ proposed stay would do them irreparable harm. For one, the Mandate threatens to substantially burden the liberty interests21 of reluctant individual recipients put to a choice between their job(s) and their jab(s). For the individual petitioners, the loss of constitutional freedoms “for even minimal periods of time . . . unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.” Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 373 (1976) (“The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”).

…The States, too, have an interest in seeing their constitutionally reserved police power over public health policy defended from federal overreach.

The Constitution vests a limited legislative power in Congress. For more than a century, Congress has routinely used this power to delegate policymaking specifics and technical details to executive agencies charged with effectuating policy principles Congress lays down. In the mine run of cases—a transportation department regulating trucking on an interstate highway, or an aviation agency regulating an airplane lavatory—this is generally well and good. But health agencies do not make housing policy, and occupational safety administrations do not make health policy. Cf. Ala. Ass’n of Realtors, 141 S. Ct. at 2488–90. In seeking to do so here, OSHA runs afoul of the statute from which it draws its power and, likely, violates the constitutional structure that safeguards our collective liberty.

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Jones, Duncan, and Engelhardt, Circuit Judges. Kurt D. Engelhardt, Circuit Judge: | BST et al., v. OSHA, U. S. Dept. of Labor, et al., | November 12, 2021

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