Law & Principles
Ray Carter | October 14, 2021
Stitt, O’Connor vow to fight Biden vaccine mandate
Gov. Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor said the state is prepared to fight the private-business COVID vaccine mandate recently announced by President Joe Biden.
Biden has said existing law allows the federal government to require that citizens be vaccinated for COVID-19 as a condition of private-sector employment under federal health-and-workplace-safety laws.
To date, the administration has not released any associated regulations. Stitt said the state of Oklahoma is “ready to take President Biden to court the second the rules are made public.”
“This action is not just federal overreach,” Stitt said. “It’s unconstitutional.”
“There are currently no rules that require employers to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for employees,” said Attorney General John O'Connor. “I urge Oklahoma employers to disregard the Biden administration’s wishes to the contrary. In the event federal emergency rules are issued that place such an unlawful demand upon employers, our office will be joined by other state Attorneys General across the country to quickly sue and seek an injunction against any implementation or enforcement.”
Stitt noted that Biden’s mandate would “force Americans to choose between a vaccine and their job,” including many front-line workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The people this is affecting aren’t just statistics. They’re real Oklahomans with real concerns,” Stitt said. “They’re brave nurses and caretakers. They’re expecting mothers and fathers. They’re first responders and brave law enforcement.”
Stitt said he has “heard from thousands of employees across the state who feel they’ve been dealt an unfair hand,” including “pregnant, soon-to-be mothers who are faced with an impossible choice: Get the vaccine or lose your job.”
The governor noted he is among those who have been vaccinated, even though Stitt previously contracted COVID-19 and therefore had natural immunity. And Stitt noted that 71 percent of Oklahomans over the age of 18 have also chosen to become vaccinated, including 93 percent of individuals age 65 and older, the group most susceptible to severe impacts from COVID.
But Stitt also said that getting the vaccine “is a personal choice. Period.”
“We know the COVID vaccine is our best defense against severe illness,” Stitt said. “But static, one-size-fits all mandates simply do not fit the reality we are in today.”
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are already down 50 percent from their recent high, he noted.
Stitt said private companies may choose to require vaccination as a condition of employment, but that the government should not force employers to take that stance.
“I don’t believe it’s the government’s job to dictate policies to private companies,” Stitt said. “Just as I believe Joe Biden can’t tell businesses they have to mandate a vaccine, I don’t believe the government should tell a company they can’t. Businesses should have the freedom to make decisions based on their circumstances.”
However, Stitt also stressed that private businesses should “allow exemptions for religious, medical, or personal reasons,” and O’Connor expressed similar views.
“Oklahomans should have the right to make their own personal health decisions for themselves and their families,” O’Connor said. “Employers that are mandating vaccines are unfortunately doing so upon their own initiative. Religious, medical, and personal exemptions should be uniformly approved by those employers at the very least.”
Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said Senate Republicans support the governor and attorney general in this effort.
“Senate Republicans stand with Governor Stitt and Attorney General O’Connor in opposing the president’s vaccine mandate,” Treat said. “The vaccines are safe and effective, but individuals should have the freedom to decide whether they get the shot. The vaccine mandate is a gross overreach by the Biden administration and exactly why Senate Republicans this year backed legislation and provided funding to the Attorney General’s office to challenge and overturn federal overreach. Oklahoma employers and employees can know the state Senate has their back and will join the challenge against this overreaching federal move and any others in the future.”
The looming mandate has been associated with a growing shortage of health care workers as those employees either quit or are fired at facilities across the country, as well as allegedly playing a factor in airline cancellations due to pilots protesting the mandate.
Democrats have vowed to make COVID response a key part of 2022 political campaigns in Oklahoma. Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister recently announced she was switching parties to run as a Democrat against Stitt, criticizing the governor’s response to COVID.
In general, Stitt has chosen not to rely on mandates and has sought to allow businesses to remain open and preserve economic activity while citizens are granted the flexibility to determine how they respond to the pandemic.
As state superintendent, Hofmeister proposed a plan that would have prevented many, if not most, Oklahoma school districts from offering in-person instruction throughout much of the 2020-2021 school year, and she opposed a law approved this year that allowed parents to choose whether to have their child wear a mask at school, winning her praise from the Biden administration. Hofmeister also opposed Stitt’s efforts to reduce the mass quarantining of healthy students.
While district-level data on Oklahoma testing results has not yet been made available so parents can compare the results in districts with in-person instruction versus those that went mostly online, the state’s Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency (LOFT) recently examined results in Texas and found that “the largest performance declines occurred for students who spent more of the year learning remotely—and by a large margin.” Researchers said that finding was “statistically certain.”
As of publication, Hofmeister had not issued any public statement regarding her stance on making COVID vaccinations a condition of private-sector employment.
Oklahomans for Health & Parental Rights, which has advocated for the rights of employees to opt out of COVID vaccine mandates, including many Oklahoma health care workers, issued a statement thanking Stitt and O’Connor “for your willingness to fight” but said more is needed. The group said Ascension Hospital “has denied over 300 religious exemptions in just a few days.”
“Thousands of Oklahomans are losing their jobs as we speak. While we respect private business, government is already involved in this issue,” the Oklahomans for Health & Parental Rights statement declared, noting that government is offering financial incentives to vaccine-mandate businesses and also shields vaccine makers from immunity.
Stitt vowed to fight for Oklahomans’ rights.
“Let’s put Oklahoma common sense before DC politics,” Stitt said. “We live in the greatest country in the world, where our Constitution protects individual freedoms. And as your governor I will always stand up for your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”
NOTE: This story has been updated since publication to include comments from Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.