WASHINGTON, United States (AFP/AP) — The US Supreme Court delivered a blow to President Joe Biden on Thursday, blocking his COVID-19 vaccination-or-test mandate for large businesses.
At the same time, the nation's highest court allowed a vaccination mandate for health-care workers at facilities receiving federal funding to go ahead.
After months of public appeals to Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, which has killed more than 845,000 people in the United States, Biden announced in September that he was making vaccinations compulsory at companies that employ 100 workers or more.
Unvaccinated employees would have to present weekly negative tests and wear face masks at work.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency, gave businesses until February 9 to be in compliance with the rules or face the possibility of fines.
But the Supreme Court's six conservative justices ruled the mandate would represent a “significant encroachment into the lives — and health — of a vast number of employees”.
“Although Congress has indisputably given OSHA the power to regulate occupational dangers, it has not given that agency the power to regulate public health more broadly,” they said.
“Requiring the vaccination of 84 million Americans, selected simply because they work for employers with more than 100 employees, certainly falls in the latter category,” they added.
The three liberal justices dissented.
The vaccination mandate for health-care workers at facilities receiving federal funding was approved in a 5-4 vote, with two conservatives — Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh — joining the liberals.
“Ensuring that providers take steps to avoid transmitting a dangerous virus to their patients is consistent with the fundamental principle of the medical profession: First, do no harm,” they said in the majority opinion.
Vaccination has become a politically polarising issue in the United States, where 62 per cent of the population are vaccinated.
A coalition of 26 business associations had filed suit against the OSHA regulations and several Republican-led states had challenged the mandate for health care workers.
Some Republican lawmakers cheered the high court striking down business mandates.
“Today's Supreme Court ruling sends a clear message: Biden is not a king & his gross overreaches of federal power will not be tolerated,” Senator Rick Scott tweeted.
“I had COVID & got the vaccine, but I will NEVER support a vaccine mandate that bullies hard-working Americans & kills jobs.”
Biden, in response, said he was “disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law”.
He called on businesses to institute their own vaccination requirements, noting that a third of Fortune 100 companies already have done so.
When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harboured doubts that it could withstand them. The Administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and encouraging private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.
The OSHA regulation had initially been blocked by a federal appeals court in New Orleans, then allowed to take effect by a federal appellate panel in Cincinnati.
Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.
The National Retail Federation, the nation's largest retail trade group, called the Supreme Court's decision “a significant victory for employers”.
The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority. The mandate covers virtually all health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It affects 10.4 million workers at 76,000 health-care facilities as well as home health-care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.
Biden said that decision by the court “will save lives”.