A number of Southern Baptist leaders are taking a cautious approach to President Joe Biden’s announcement Sept. 9 that businesses with 100 or more employees will soon be required to have all employees be vaccinated or tested weekly. Biden said he is aiming at getting 100 million more people vaccinated, believing the strategy will stop the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant in the U.S.
Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reacted to the announcement saying: “We encourage vaccination but oppose mandated vaccination. We are watching the situation closely and fully expect multiple legal challenges to be filed against the President’s announced mandate to private employers.”
Biden’s frustration toward those who have chosen to avoid the vaccines was evident in his speech as he said, “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”
Mohler said he believed Biden’s “words and attitude were profoundly unhelpful.”
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Adam W. Greenway echoed Mohler’s sentiment saying that while he respects “the decisions of those who for medical reasons or conscientious objections have declined to be vaccinated, a government-mandated vaccination program of private businesses and institutions is deeply troubling. Regrettably, the President’s actions will bring further division and polarization to a nation that is already profoundly divided.”
Greenway also emphasized the school’s continued work to keep the Southwestern community safe throughout the pandemic. “Our goal throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been to do everything within our power to keep our students, faculty and staff as safe as possible,” Greenway said. “I believe that vaccination is a proven means to help achieve that goal, which is why I have been vaccinated, and I have publicly and repeatedly encouraged members of the Southwestern community to be vaccinated.”
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press that he believes “getting vaccinated is in the best interest of national health. However, an emergency mandate through regulatory action by the Department of Labor is the government trespassing on civil liberties. I am always wary of government overreach and infringements on our liberties. Further, I found the President’s bullying language towards the unvaccinated troubling and unnecessarily divisive. In this great experiment that is our beloved America, we always live in tension with the responsibilities we are called to as citizens and the protection of our rights. President Biden’s actions and tone did not strike the necessary balance between these two, and I am hoping that the legal system will help correct the overstep.”
The employer mandate will be regulated by the Labor Department and administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), according to the Biden administration – a move that has several Southern Baptist entity leaders waiting on more information.
“We are awaiting to see how the final OSHA regulations are written to study them and see if they actually affect GuideStone,” said O.S. Hawkins, president of GuideStone Financial Resources.
Ben Mandrell, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, and Kevin Ezell, president of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) said they will take similar approaches.
“The health and wellbeing of our employees is always a priority for Lifeway,” Mandrell said. “We will continue to monitor the progress and evaluate the Department of Labor order and its applicability to Lifeway once it is released.”
“It is going to take some time to evaluate what the Biden Administration announced yesterday,” said NAMB President Kevin Ezell, adding that NAMB is reviewing current CDC guidance as they look for “ways to best safeguard staff and guests.”
Several governors vowed to fight the mandate in court, including Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, took to Twitter on Friday, writing, “Though I’ve chosen & encouraged vaccination, I found both President Biden’s tone & his mandate for employers like @MBTS to require vaccination or weekly testing for employees alarming. I expect his overreach to be challenged in court. I hope those challenges prove successful.”
New Orleans Baptist Seminary president Jamie Dew said he also expects legal challenges to the mandate.
“I am grateful that we have safe and effective vaccines available to fight COVID-19 and hope that all of our students and employees will get one of those vaccines,” Dew said. “Nevertheless, I have great reservations about President Biden’s recent mandate and feel certain that it will be contested in the courts.”
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Executive Committee, the Woman’s Missionary Union and Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission would be exempt from the mandate as they employ fewer than 100 people.
Not only will the proposal face legal challenges, the ERLC also noted “the rule will likely face implementation challenges as the vaccine and testing date from each employer will need to be stored and verified by OSHA for enforcement purposes.”
While this may challenge large SBC entities and organizations, churches “will likely not be affected because they will not meet the requisite number of employees,” according to the ERLC.
At least one Southern Baptist organization has already implemented a new vaccine policy – though the policy is unrelated to the President’s announcement.
The International Mission Board (IMB) announced Sept. 9 a new policy that “requires IMB missionaries and their children ages 16 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to attending Field Personnel Orientation prior to their long-term field service; and IMB missionaries and their children ages 16 and older to be vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to attending Stateside Conference during their periodic return to the United States.”
“The International Mission Board exists to serve Southern Baptists in carrying out the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations – even to those people in the overpopulated urban cities, even to those in the hardest-to-reach jungles and plains,” IMB President Paul Chitwood said. “And the IMB is pressing forward to share the gospel even in the midst of an ongoing global pandemic that is no respecter of geographical boundaries or human demographics.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Brandon Porter serves as associate vice president for convention news at the SBC Executive Committee.)