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President Joe Biden’s rule requiring millions of American workers to get a COVID-19 vaccine or submit to regular testing has sparked outcry among law enforcement — particularly sheriffs, many of whom are facing reelection.
In Facebook posts and public statements, elected law enforcement officials have called the president’s rule “tyranny” and “unconstitutional government overreach.”
Several cited their obligation to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is expected to draft Biden’s rule, which will affect at least 80 million employees. But enforcement won’t likely fall to local deputies or police officers — that authority belongs to OSHA, the federal agency tasked with overseeing workplace health and safety regulations.
Pushback from sheriffs coincides with calls from GOP governors to fight Biden’s order. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis made that vow before the president even made his announcement, while Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Idaho Gov. Brad Little said they would support legal action.
Sheriff Chad Sheehan with the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa, which employs about 120 people, said he wouldn’t comply with a vaccine mandate because he was elected to protect the “freedoms and liberties guaranteed in the constitution of the United States,” The Sioux City Journal reported.
Brazoria County Sheriff Bo Stallman in Texas likened the “tyrannical, overreaching government” to a “domestic enemy.”
In a letter to employees, he said they will not be required to “adhere to any vaccine mandate or any other mandate that would attempt to infringe on your individual liberties and freedoms.”
Sheriff Tim Ryals in Faulkner County, Arkansas, called the mandate “truly an attempt of tyranny with such an overreach of authority.”
“It is in that defense and the defense of individual liberty that the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office will not mandate the COVID vaccine for any of our employees nor will we enforce any such mandate in Faulkner County,” Ryals said.
In Bollinger County, Missouri, Sheriff Casey A. Graham called Biden’s order an “unbelievable tyrannical executive action” and a form of “unconstitutional government overreach” that he would “NEVER enforce.”
Logan County Sheriff Damon Devereaux in Oklahoma said his office’s first duty is to defend the Constitution and he will respect each employee’s choice to get vaccinated or not.
“I’m appalled at some of the absolute dictator-like tactics we are seeing from our Federal Government and several other State Governments,” Devereaux said in a statement. “It flies in the face of everything our country has always stood for and is furthering the damage and division done to the people of this great nation.”
According to Johns Hopkins University, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma have lower vaccination rates than other parts of the U.S.
Less than 50% of the population is fully vaccinated in Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, data show. In Iowa and Texas, close to 53% and about 50%, respectively, have received both doses.
Some have questioned whether the president has the authority to implement such a sweeping vaccine and testing requirement, citing freedoms afforded by the U.S. Constitution.
Early in the pandemic, when public closures, gathering bans, quarantine notices and orders for isolation were sweeping the country, Constitutional law experts were clear: No one’s “freedoms” were being infringed upon.
“Some of those basic liberties are going to be truncated for a brief period. Most Americans understand the need for that,” James G. Hodge, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, told McClatchy News at the time.
An article for the Constitution Daily with the nonprofit National Constitution Center addresses some of those arguments as they relate to vaccine mandates, citing two Supreme Court decisions.
The first came in 1905, when Supreme Court justices ruled a Massachusetts town was justified in requiring residents take the smallpox vaccine or pay a $5 fine. In a majority opinion penned by Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan, the court determined that individual freedoms don’t afford people a “free pass to restrict the liberty of others by allowing the virus to spread,” Business Insider reported
The Supreme Court came to a “similar conclusion” in 1922, according to the National Constitution Center.
“Generally, these decisions concluded that these governments may tell people to get vaccines, unless they belong to an exempt group, or face a penalty,” the nonprofit said.
Opposition before Biden’s mandate
Law enforcement was pushing back against local and state vaccination mandates before Biden issued a federal rule.
Police and first responders said they wouldn’t comply with any such vaccine requirement even after Pfizer received full FDA approval, PBS reported. The head of the police union in Chicago said they “don’t want to be forced to do anything, period —this ain’t Nazi f---ing Germany.”
In Charlotte, where vaccination rates among firefighters and police officers trailed other departments, organizations representing them wrote a letter standing in defiance of a possible vaccine mandate for city workers.
“Governmental agencies that impose mandates that go against individual beliefs and rights are dangerous and should not be permitted,” the letter said. “Your employees have courageously fought through this pandemic and should not be faced with an uncertain future because of a vaccination mandate. “
That disapproval has only mounted since Biden unveiled his plan last week.
According to the Associated Press, the “most heated opposition has come from law enforcement unions,” with protests in New Jersey and pushback from police unions in Chicago and Richmond, Virginia. The local police union in Portland, Oregon, got its members exempt from a city vaccine mandate, the AP reported.
“The more conservative side of the labor movement, in terms of politics, are going to be the police and firefighter unions,” Simon Haeder, a political scientist studying vaccine mandates at Penn State University, told the AP. “Yes, you’re a union person and yes, you want the workplace to get back to normal, but the identity of being a Republican outweighs a lot of those things.”