Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

U.S. District Judge David C. Norton of Charleston recently had the chance many of us wished we had for the last 10 months — to pick apart disingenuous anti-vaccine arguments to show them to be, as he wrote, “half-baked.”

Most squabbles over vaccine rules come in sudden or disjointed spurts in passing or on social media. But 1990 Bush-appointed Norton’s Oct. 21 order denying a request by a group of government employees to stop their employers’ vaccine mandates systematically dismantled the case against vaccinations.

More than 125 local public employees filed the federal suit after local officials in Charleston County, the cities of North Charleston and Charleston, as well as the St. Paul Fire District, announced plans in September to require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The plans vary slightly, but all phase-in by mid-November. All include exemptions for people with documented religious or other exceptions, requiring them to undergo regular virus testing.

Raising objections to vaccine mandates in federal court may seem like a fool’s errand, since it has been, after all, the federal government that has (mostly) led the pandemic response. But to be fair to the employees bringing lawsuits, federal judges have been deferential to people who raise challenges on the basis of “sincerely held religious beliefs” — the standard for civil rights protections derived from the First Amendment.

But of course, the policies do provide religious exceptions. And Norton was having none of the spurned employees’ arguments.

“The court will not countenance this so-called ‘spaghetti approach’ to litigation whereby the parties ‘heave the entire contents of a pot against the wall in hopes that something [will] stick,’” he said, quoting previous case law.

The fact is, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, followed by fellow Charleston-area leaders, showed leadership and good judgment by swiftly enacting these mandates together in early September. Of course, record virus case numbers over the summer and widespread vaccine availability made it a no-brainer decision. Nonetheless, local leaders deserve credit for putting their weight behind the urgent push for vaccinations.

It’s not politics. It’s a public-health issue.

“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,” the judge wrote.

Norton saw through specious claims of politicization as well, saying local leaders “have presented substantial evidence that the policies are based not on the fact that plaintiffs hold a certain belief regarding vaccination, but rather on the legitimate threat that their unvaccinated condition poses to public safety and effective governmental operations.”

Yes, many agencies are already strapped due to the pandemic and preexisting workforce shortages. But as Norton wrote, “No plaintiff is imprisoned and facing vaccination against his or her will.”

All-business, Summey reacted simply: “The city is hopeful that some plaintiffs, having read Judge Norton’s order, may now comply with the vaccination order to retain employment.”

Thanks to local leaders who stepped out to enact the requirements. Public-sector vaccine mandates will make more people get the shot. Let’s keep it up.

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