In summer 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States came down on the side of the Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Ardent capitalists and many devout Christians – in what was once an example of strange bedfellows, but not so much today – hailed the ruling as a victory for free market and religious liberty.
It would be interesting to know what SCOTUS would think of the Oklahoma Legislature's attempt to force private entrepreneurs to expose themselves to employees and others who refuse to take COVID-19 vaccinations. Dress codes, visible tattoos and piercings, and other physical features have long been the purview of bosses, like "no shirt, no shoes, no business." Conservative lawmakers typically say if someone doesn't like the head honcho's rules, they can find another job. But while bare feet may seem unhygenic, they probably won't kill anyone; COVID-19 might. Under these highly unusual circumstances, a law preventing business owners from protecting themselves might not pass constitutional muster. It also runs against the grain of America's free enterprise tradition, but lawmakers know many voters care less for democratic principles than they do for getting their own way, no matter how selfish or bigoted.
Sen. Warren Hamilton, R-McCurtain, asked Gov. Kevin Stitt to call a special session to ban private businesses from requiring employees to be vaccinated. Warren said: "It just blows me away to think that you can actually compel a human being to put something in their body that they don't want." He's right, but where do we draw the line? Why not treat the matter the same as vaccinations for school children, and ask employees who can't take the shot to get an exemption? And why spend money for a special session?
Lawmakers everywhere are continuing to chip away at the rights of private businesses to operate as they see fit, with a few caveats. It's puzzling why anyone would find a loving gay couple more offensive than a known pathogen that has killed nearly 612,000 Americans. But thanks to the drumbeat of certain high-profile politicians and pundits, the vaccination is viewed as the mark of a liberal beast. Otherwise, officials would be letting business owners run their own shows, as they've done when trying to tighten workers compensation laws or making it harder for a fired employee to draw unemployment. Legislators have also enthusiastically upheld the "rights" of businesses to refuse to provide insurance that would cover birth control, or to discriminate based on sexual orientation. But while the uber-sensitive may be offended by LGBTQ people or drugs that allow a woman to avoid pregnancy, their survival isn't threatened.
Most national-level companies have already decided it may be legally problematic to force employees to get the COVID shot, though they encourage it. On the other hand, the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution says a municipal governing body can enact and enforce ordinances to safeguard public health, and can make regulations to "prevent the introduction of contagious diseases into the municipality and may enforce quarantine laws within five miles of the [city] limits." Neither Stitt nor a good number of legislators seem familiar with that clause.
Interestingly, State Rep. Bob Ed Culver did not sign onto this move; perhaps he's being prudent, and exercising caution before wading into these waters. Or maybe he suspects – as others do – that next on the agenda will be a law forcing business owners to serve defiant – and sick – customers who are coughing in their faces.
Sane folks are just as tired of the politicization of COVID-19 as they are of the virus itself, and they also realize from whence came most of the controversy, suspicion and anti-intellectualism. It will be up to public officials who are more far-sighted to take the matter in hand – people who aren't interested in clinging to power at all costs.