Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor is asking businesses to hold off on implementing vaccine mandates while his office and other attorneys general continue to litigate the issue.
Though Jan. 4, 2022 was originally designated as the deadline for large companies and health care providers nationwide to require either employee vaccination or weekly testing of unvaccinated workers, O’Connor said those directives have been temporarily halted by federal courts and are not being enforced at the present time.
“I just encourage all private employers don’t jump the gun, please wait, keep those good employees that have been loyal and they want to be loyal to you,” O’Connor said during Wednesday’s monthly Commerce webinar. “It’s much more expensive to hire and train somebody new than it is to keep the great employees that you have.”
O’Connor’s office is awaiting a response from the federal court in the Western District of Oklahoma regarding its challenge to the Biden administration’s mandate for federal contractors. That legal challenge is different from the others as it involves points of contract law, said Mithun Mansinghani, solicitor general for the state of Oklahoma.
“Stay tuned,” O’Connor said. “In a week or 10 days know if we have a national injunction. … Let us do our work, and then watch the news.”
O’Connor said he himself is vaccinated, and he encourages others to get vaccinated as well.
“My objection is with the notion that it is a mandatory vaccination,” O’Connor said. “They’re trying to get the private employers to be the bad guys. Private employers are not bad guys.”
O’Connor’s office is suing a private employer – Ascension Healthcare, which operates St. John Medical Center in Tulsa – for the way it has implemented its vaccination mandate, but O’Connor characterized that action as a civil rights lawsuit.
“We heard that Ascension in Tulsa, which is St. John’s Hospital, was going to fire as many as 130 and maybe into 300 people who had requested religious exemptions, and we also heard that Ascension was denying 100% of those requests,” O’Connor said. “That sounded to us like discrimination based on religious beliefs, so we filed a lawsuit to stop that. We don’t sue private employers quickly or easily, but religious discrimination trumps that policy on our behalf.”
Employers joining the webinar had questions about how a business is supposed to qualify for a religious claim.
“Our view is that we’re not going to try to question somebody’s religion,” Mansinghani said. Workers do not have to “point to a text in their sacred scriptures that says anything like that, but if they claim one we will take their claim seriously.”
Ascension, one of the largest private health care systems in the United States, was founded as a nonprofit Catholic system. In December 2020, as COVID-19 vaccines were just becoming available, the Vatican’s doctrinal office said that when alternative vaccines are not available, it is morally acceptable to receive vaccines that were developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses.
O’Connor said his office is working with Ascension to investigate the claims of religious discrimination.
“But I think we saved at least hundreds of jobs in the medical community, and possibly thousands as other medical care providers have watched how they need to treat the religious exceptions,” O’Connor said.
“Keep in mind that these (health care workers) have been operating without vaccines this entire time, using appropriate masks and testing, and they’re willing to do that again,” O’Connor said. “For 15 or 18 months they have not been required, and yet the health care providers were continuing to provide health care to everybody who needed it, with these same employees who have not been vaccinated. So all the sudden now they’re going to get fired if they don’t get vaccinated? That doesn’t sound right to me. That doesn’t sound American to me either.”
So far, 10,879 deaths in Oklahoma have been attributed to COVID-19. Vaccines against COVID-19 became first available only 12 months ago, and then only to those at highest risk. In August, a federal court upheld a Texas health care company’s vaccination for certain workers in its system.
Oklahoma AG: Businesses should avoid vaccine mandates | The Journal Record