A federal judge on Thursday denied a massive effort by nearly 80 firefighters, police officers, sheriff’s deputies and paramedics to temporarily stop four separate COVID-19 vaccination mandates from going into effect next month in the Charleston area.
U.S. District Judge David Norton of Charleston rejected their motion for a temporary restraining order, saying the plaintiffs in the case failed to present a viable legal theory in their attempt to block the vaccine mandates.
“Their right to express themselves by refusing the COVID-19 vaccine is outweighed by the government’s interest in protecting their employees and communities from a deadly infectious disease,” the judge wrote in a 51-page opinion.
The decision means the respective mandates for the city of North Charleston, Charleston County, the city of Charleston and the St. John’s Fire District will go into effect as planned next month, when deadlines being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Though four separate lawsuits were filed against each of the governments imposing these mandates, the suits echoed each other in their respective legal arguments and were heard together in federal court.
The suits all claimed that a COVID-19 vaccine mandate violated state and federal constitution, causing plaintiffs irreparable harm. Attorney Tom Winslow of Pawleys Island, who is one of the lawyers representing plaintiffs in these four cases, said in an interview last week that it was also about individual freedoms, bodily autonomy and right to privacy.
“This is not about a vaccine, or medicine or a virus. It’s not about employers or employees. It’s not about even a mandate,” Winslow told The State newspaper about the lawsuits. “The question is where do you believe your ability to control your own body comes from?”
Attorneys further argued that the requirement forced government employees “to decide between their livelihoods and vindicating their statutory and constitutional rights.”
The judge, however, pointed out in his ruling that their argument didn’t hold water.
Norton said at least two other federal district courts have explicitly held that losing your job over a refusal to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate does not constitute irreparable harm, noting that wrongfully terminated plaintiffs can receive monetary damages to compensate for their job loss.
He also defended the government’s decision to require vaccines in the pandemic.
“Because the vaccine undisputedly reduces the spread of COVID-19, the government has not only a legitimate interest in limiting its employees’ freedom to express themselves by vaccine refusal, but a compelling one,” Norton wrote.
The legal decision is the latest battle in the growing national debate over vaccine requirements, particularly among first responders and the communities they swore to protect.
Last year, the coronavirus was the No. 1 killer of law enforcement officers. Data compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page also notes that despite the rollout of vaccines, COVID-19 is still on track to hold onto that deadly title in 2021.
Though data shows they are dying from the novel coronavirus in greater numbers nationwide, first responders are also the ones pushing back against vaccine mandates.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, who called the threat of the pandemic “unprecedented in our times” when he announced his city’s vaccine mandate last month, welcomed the ruling Thursday.
“This is essential to provide a safe working environment for city employees and to deliver safe and efficient services to our citizens,” Summey said in a statement. “The city is hopeful that some plaintiffs, having read Judge Norton’s order, may now wish to comply with the vaccination policy in order to retain employment.”
Initially, the state’s third-largest city had required its employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 5.
But, in light of Thursday’s ruling, Summey said North Charleston will now grant a 14-day extension, giving employees until Nov. 19 to become fully compliant or have a waiver approved.
If they fail to do so, though, employees will be terminated as a result of the policy. Summey first announced the vaccine requirement in September with an executive order, which did not require the support of city council.
A city spokesman did not immediately provide current employee vaccination rates Thursday afternoon.
A spokesman for the city of Charleston, however, reported 91% of its city employees are vaccinated as of Thursday afternoon. Charleston, the largest city in South Carolina, has about one month to go until its compliance deadline.
“No matter any individual’s stance on COVID-19, every person, including plaintiffs in these cases, can agree that ending the COVID-19 pandemic is in the public’s collective best interest for purposes of balancing equities,” Norton wrote.
Attorney Tom Fernandez of Summerville, an attorney who also represented plaintiffs in these cases, expressed disappointment over the ruling in a statement emailed to The State newspaper.
“I obviously disagree with the judge’s decision. All of these plaintiffs have a right – inherited at birth and protected by the Constitution – to their own bodily autonomy,” Fernandez said. “The decision for health care is a choice that must be left between an individual, their doctor, and their Heavenly Father. It should never be left up to government coercion under threat of fine, citation, or even loss of employment.”
The vaccine compliance deadlines are Nov. 7 for Charleston County, Nov. 19 for the city of North Charleston, Nov. 20 for St. John’s Fire Department and Nov. 22 for the city of Charleston.