In a November 19 email, chair of the university’s Crisis Management Advisory Committee and Vice President for Administration Kevin Kirby explained that while the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had halted an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for employers with more than 100 employees, a second Biden directive for federal contractors would impact the university.
“Rice does accept federal contracts, so we must comply with this order requiring all Rice employees to be fully vaccinated by January 4, 2022, unless they’re granted a medical or religious exemption,” wrote Kirby.
Rice employees must provide a vaccination record to the university or submit a request for a religious or medical exemption. A form provided for those seeking a religious exemption asks for a detailed statement of applicable religious beliefs as well as information about which other vaccines and flu shots the employee has had.
Earlier this year, Gov. Greg Abbott issued executive orders banning vaccine mandates for public entities, and in October extended the orders to private businesses. Some state lawmakers are calling for a fourth special session of the legislature to formalize such bans in Texas.
Multiple states including Texas have filed lawsuits over the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors, and earlier this week a U.S. District Court judge in Kentucky issued a temporary injunction blocking the mandate but only in the states of Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee.
In his 45-page opinion, Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove wrote, “It strains credulity that Congress intended the FPASA [Federal Property and Administrative Services Act], a procurement statute, to be the basis for promulgating a public health measure such as mandatory vaccination.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit over the federal contractor mandate also argues that FPASA does not give the president unlimited authority over procurement, and that the Biden rules exceed the authority granted to the federal government by the Constitution. The case remains pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Although Rice administrators have interpreted the federal contractor mandate to apply to all employees, other universities such as Texas A&M (TAMU) are exploring a more limited application.
While TAMU has previously stated that COVID-19 vaccines are not required “for students, faculty, or staff,” last month the university notified employees that more than $2 billion in federal contracts could be at risk and that administration was working to identify which employees and facilities might be subject to the federal mandates.
While the halt to the federal contractor mandate does not currently apply to Texas, a preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge in Louisiana this week pauses a U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) rule requiring COVID-19 vaccines for employees of Medicare providers and some suppliers.
“There is no question that mandating a vaccine to 10.3 million health care workers is something that should be done by Congress, not a government agency,” wrote U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty in issuing the injunction. “It is not clear that even an act of Congress mandating a vaccine would be constitutional.”
In response to Doughty’s ruling, the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston announced a halt to its own vaccine mandate on Wednesday.
Both a medical school and a hospital, UTMB had last month informed its 13,800 employees that they must receive at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or obtain an exemption by December 6.
A UTMB spokesperson told the Galveston Daily News that the facility would pause implementation while waiting for further court action.
By the end of November, UTMB says 81 percent of employees had received a vaccine or been given an exemption.
Rice University, which employs more than 5,000, says that 90 percent of its community of faculty, staff, and students have voluntarily received vaccinations.
According to University Business magazine, Paul Quinn College, Rice University, Southwestern University, and St. Edward’s University, all private schools, are the only colleges in Texas currently implementing a vaccine mandate for students and faculty.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.