In Short

Judge rejects Oregon state troopers’ Covid vaccine mandate lawsuit

By: - October 8, 2021 1:54 pm

Most people will be able to get vaccines, including the updated ones expected to be available this fall, for free. (Getty Images)

Oregon state troopers who refuse to get vaccinated for Covid failed in their initial attempt to block an Oct. 18 vaccination deadline after a state judge ruled against them late Thursday.

Nearly three dozen troopers, along with the Oregon Fraternal Order of Police and a union representing Klamath County firefighters, sued Gov. Kate Brown over her order that all executive branch employees, health care workers and educators be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Thursday’s ruling from Jefferson County Circuit Court senior judge Jack Landau leaves the Oct. 18 deadline in place, though several other lawsuits in other venues over the mandate are still pending.

Landau wrote that the troopers and others didn’t demonstrate that their legal arguments contesting the mandate would likely win in future proceedings.

“The governor and the state of Oregon have an unquestioned interest in protecting the health and wellbeing of the state’s employees,” he wrote. “Likewise, they have an undeniable interest in protecting the public from the dangers posed by the Covid-19 virus.” 

The officers’ attorney, Portland-based Daniel Thenell, is also representing a coalition of health care workers and a group of firefighters in two additional lawsuits against Brown and the Oregon Health Authority over vaccine mandates. 

Neither case has yet received a hearing, but Thenell’s arguments in each suit are nearly identical. He argued that only the Legislature, not Brown, can pass vaccine mandates. Landau determined that Brown’s orders during a state of emergency do have the force of law, because the Legislature expanded the governor’s power during a declared emergency.

The officers and Thenell’s other plaintiffs also argue that a vaccine mandate violates their rights to free expression and free practice of religion. Brown’s orders allow for exemptions if employees refuse to get vaccinated because of their religious beliefs.

However, Landau ruled that refusing a vaccine is not protected speech in and of itself. Instead, he wrote, refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate as a form of expression is like trespassing as a form of protest: however pure the motives, it’s still against the law. 

“Standing in the middle of a street obstructing traffic or illegally parking a car are not immunized merely because they are intended as expressions of opinion,” he wrote. 

The deadline for workers affected  by their mandate to receive their final dose of a Covid vaccine in order to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 already passed, but the Oregon Health Authority this week advised employers to avoid firing unvaccinated employees. Where possible, they should allow workers to work remotely, take vacation or go on unpaid leave, but they cannot continue working with the public after Oct. 18 if they’re not vaccinated, the agency’s director said. 

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.