Law & Courts

Federal Judge Blocks Biden’s COVID Vaccine Mandate for Head Start Teachers

By Mark Walsh — January 02, 2022 4 min read
COVID face masks and gavel
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A federal district judge over the weekend blocked the Biden administration’s mandate requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for workers in the federal Head Start early education program.

The preliminary injunction by U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty of Monroe, La., in a challenge brought by 24 states, also blocks the mandate’s requirement that Head Start students age 2 or older wear masks while indoors or in close contact with others.

The Jan. 1 ruling in Louisiana v. Becerra comes as school resumes for many students after the holiday break amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. And it comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a request to block a California school district’s vaccine mandate for students and will hear arguments on Jan. 7 over two other Biden administration efforts to expand vaccines.

One of those involves the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s temporary rule requiring private employers with 100 or more workers to implement a vaccine mandate. The rule also applies to public employers, including school districts, in 26 states and two territories that have state-level workplace safety plans approved by OSHA.

The OSHA case may reveal how Supreme Court justices think about federal vaccine efforts, which may affect the case involving the Department of Health and Human Services’ Nov. 30 interim rule establishing the Head Start vaccine mandate. Under the Head Start rule, the masking requirement took effect immediately, while the vaccine measure requires Head Start teachers, staff members, and contractors who work directly with children to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 31.

Louisiana and the 23 other states that sued HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra allege that the agency lacked the authority to adopt the Head Start rule and that the measure violated several provisions of federal administrative law and the U.S. Constitution.

In granting the preliminary injunction, Doughty agreed with many of the states’ claims. Federal law does not give HHS or its officials “any superpowers to implement rules such as these,” the judge wrote.

“How far would they be able to go?” Doughty added. “Could the secretary mandate all children in the Head Start Program be vaccinated? Could the secretary mandate the parents and siblings of children in Head Start to take the COVID-19 vaccines? These examples may seem far-fetched, but so did the idea that vaccines could be mandated to millions of United States citizens.”

The judge continued, “A crossroad has clearly been reached in this country. If the executive branch is allowed to usurp the power of the legislative branch to make laws, then this country is no longer a democracy—it is a monarchy. This two-year pandemic has fatigued the entire country. However, this is not an excuse to forego the separation of powers.”

Doughty limited his injunction to the 24 plaintiff states, as opposed to issuing a nationwide injunction.

The Head Start ruling comes just days before the Supreme Court takes up the OSHA mandate, as well as a separate HHS rule requiring vaccines for workers at health facilities receiving federal funds. Although the cases challenging those mandates arrived on the court’s emergency docket, the justices decided to hear oral arguments in National Federation of Independent Business v. Department of Labor (Case No. 21A244) and Biden v. Missouri (No. 21A240) on Jan. 7, three days before their regular January sitting was set to begin.

A high school junior’s challenge to a school vaccine mandate

Meanwhile, in Doe v. San Diego Unified School District (No. 21A217), the parents of a 16-year-old high school junior have asked Justice Elena Kagan, who is circuit justice for the federal circuit that includes California, to grant emergency relief from the San Diego district’s vaccine mandate for students.

Lawyers for the student identified as Jill Doe argue that the district’s vaccine mandate cannot pass constitutional muster because it provides exemptions for as many as 85 percent of students (because federal approvals for youths under 16 are classified as emergency use authorization), but no religious exemptions.

Two lower courts declined to block the mandate, and the lawyers for Doe filed their emergency request with Kagan on Dec. 10. They say that Jill Doe had COVID-19 and that she has a religious objection to the COVID vaccines. Doe will be relegated to a remote learning program and be barred from school sports eligibility if she does not show proof of vaccination by Jan. 4, her court papers say.

Doe’s lawyers late last month filed an update noting that a California state court on Dec. 20 issued a tentative ruling blocking the district’s vaccine mandate because it had no personal belief exemption. They said emergency relief from Kagan or the full U.S. Supreme Court would still be helpful to Doe.

The San Diego school district says in a brief that its vaccine mandate is neutral and was adopted upon the advice of scientific experts.

“Like the 10 vaccines students are already mandated to receive as a condition of school admission in California, the district’s requirement includes a single, narrowly-defined and objectively-applied medical exemption for students whose health and safety is threatened by COVID-19 vaccine administration,” the brief says. “Also like the state-mandated vaccines, the district’s requirement has no religious exemption, and no personal beliefs exemption.”

Action by Kagan or the full court in the San Diego case could come at any time.

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