Under the Constitution, federal law trumps state law, but Alabama lawmakers this week passed legislation they believe finds a way to shield workers who do not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
On Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law sponsored by state Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne) that makes it easier for workers affected by federal vaccine mandates to claim exemptions for medical or religious reasons.
The law prohibits companies from firing employees who ask for exemptions until an administrative law judge at the Alabama Department of Labor has ruled on an appeal.
“In Alabama, it is illegal to terminate someone based on their vaccination status,” Elliott said. “And I think that’s a lot of protection for Alabama employees and the direction we needed to go right now.”
The law offers broad protection to employees who claim one of nine different medical exemptions, including people who have had COVID-19 within the past 12 months. In addition, people asserting “sincerely held religious beliefs” against vaccination also must get an exemption. Employers can object, but the burden of proof is on companies.
When evaluating requests of exemptions, employers “shall liberally construe the employee’s eligibility for an exemption in favor of the employee,” the law states.
President Joe Biden’s administration is pressing two wide-ranging vaccine requirements. The first requires companies doing business with the federal government to ensure that their workers are vaccinated. The second is an Occupational Safety and Health Administration rule requiring companies with 100 or more employees to mandate the vaccine.
Those requirements will take effect Jan. 4.
Some states, including Alabama, have pushed back with lawsuits challenging federal authority. Elliott, who represents part of Baldwin County, said he realizes that federal law trumps law.
“Because of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, I’m not able to stand up and fight that,” he said. “What I am able to do and what we’ve done here is broadly define the exemptions and exceptions under Alabama law that these folks can claim. … I think that is an innovating approach and we’ve been able to threat that needle.”
The law expires in May 2023. By then, Elliott said, he hopes legal challenges will have eliminated federal mandates.
Paul Horwitz, a University of Alabama law professor who teaches constitutional law and religion, said the new state law probably would withstand legal challenges.
“I’m not sure there’s an immediate conflict,” he told FOX10 News.
Horwitz noted that federal law has provisions for medical and religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. He also pointed out that companies do retain the ability challenge an exemption that workers claim.
“An employer that is concerned about safety or concerned about policy or concerned about the effect of the federal law, seems to me, can still ask for some basis for the religious claim,” he said.
Elliott said he included that appeals process specifically to withstand a possible legal challenge. But he predicted few employers would be able to prevail the appeals process. And if an employee were to lose in front of an administrative law judge, he or she would have 14 days to take the case to court.
Kiet Rodriguez, an Austal USA employee in Mobile who said he has been locked out of the system over his refusal to get the shot, said the new law is a positive step. But he said it comes too late for many employees who already have left their jobs.
“That ship has sailed for some people,” he said. “Some people, like myself, are in limbo.”
Horwitz said the Biden administration, itself, has relaxed its vaccine requirements somewhat.
“The vaccination mandate, itself, is not absolute,” he said. “It’s a soft mandate in the sense that if you don’t get vaccinated, you have to comply with regular testing requirements.”
Even if Alabama workers get exemptions under the news state law, Horwitz said, they may be required to submit to regular COVID tests – and employers have the authority to pass on the costs to those employees.
Horwitz said workers may argue that requiring them to pay for the testing amounts to an undue burden on their religious freedom.
“But I sincerely doubt that such a claim would succeed,” he said.
The legislative battle over the exemption law exposed a rare rift between Republican leaders and business leaders. Elliott and his allies forced the issue during a special session called to draw the state’s political boundaries and managed to get the supermajority needed to pass both houses.
The Business Council of Alabama, a powerful lobby that represents large businesses, argued the federal mandates should be fought with lawsuits, not state laws.
“The Legislature is constricting Alabama’s federal contractors and putting current and future jobs at risk,” the organization said in a statement released during the legislative debate. “BCA will continue to fight federal and state mandates.”
The governor, meanwhile, suggested the legislation – and another law requiring parental consent to vaccinate minors younger than 19 – is part of a larger effort to stand up against what she regards as federal overreach.
“I will continue doing everything I can as your governor to fight this thing every step of the way,” Ivey said in a statement Friday. “Alabama will not stand idly by and allow the Biden Administration to get away with this.”