This is an opinion column.
I learned a lot when I was a student at Birmingham-Southern College, but the most important lesson I learned the hard way — you can’t B.S. your way through class if you haven’t read the assignment. You can try, but you’ll wind up looking dumb.
State Sen. Arthur Orr would have done well to have learned that lesson. When I spoke with him earlier this year, he didn’t seem to understand what was in his own bill — a vaccine passport ban that Gov. Kay Ivey later signed into law.
And judging from a recent interview he gave on talk radio, I’m still not sure he’s read it.
Orr is none too happy my alma mater found a way around that new law. He thinks the college is breaking the law by creating a “constructive denial” through a new campus policy, and he says he’s called the authorities.
I’m sure they’re quaking on the old Hilltop.
Let’s look at what Birmingham-Southern’s policy really does.
This week, the college explained its new COVID mitigation policy in an email to students.
First, the college will require all students to be tested weekly for COVID.
Second, it will charge all students a $500 fee for COVID testing. The college says it must levy this fee since it won’t have federal money this year to offset COVID mitigation costs.
If a student has been vaccinated or chooses to get vaccinated while on campus, they will be exempt from the weekly testing and get a $500 rebate.
Also, unvaccinated students will have to wear masks on campus, as the CDC has said they should, and they will have to quarantine whenever they come in contact with someone who has tested COVID-positive.
In short, the college has made vaccination the path of least resistance for students. Faculty and staff will also have to be tested regularly unless they are vaccinated.
But vaccination is not required. And that’s the important point.
Because Orr’s vaccine passport law prohibits “institutions of education from requiring additional vaccines as a condition of attendance.”
Is BSC doing that? No, it is not.
“An entity or individual doing business in this state may not refuse to provide any goods or services, or refuse to allow admission, to a customer based on the customer’s immunization status or lack of documentation that the customer has received an immunization,” the law says.
Is BSC doing that? It doesn’t appear to be.
For sure, the college is nudging students and employees toward getting vaccinated, but it’s not requiring anything of the unvaccinated that wouldn’t be necessary for everyone if vaccines weren’t in the picture at all.
It’s simply making vaccinations the easier option and a sort of fast pass back to the campus life everyone wants.
Orr calls this policy a “constructive barrier” which sounds a lot like a legal term — just not one that appears anywhere in the bill Orr sponsored.
“I think the $500 limit gets into a zone where you can say that is a constructive barrier against those who may be unvaccinated,” Orr said on the radio this week. “By throwing up such a barrier, you would have to say they are constructively denying students admission because what if you don’t have $500?”
That is very … constructive reasoning.
First of all, as an alum, I can assure the senator that BSC has all sorts of costs and fees beyond tuition — food service, books, room and board — as most colleges and universities do. A COVID test fee might be new, but at a private college, it’s probably not going to break most students or exceed other fees they already pay.
Also, vaccines are free.
But If Orr is so concerned, perhaps he could set up some sort of anti-vaxxer scholarship fund.
Instead, he says he’s calling the law on the college.
“This is not the end of the story here,” he said on the radio. “I think this will continue to play out.”
OK, Senator. But when does it stop?
I wanted to ask Orr what authorities he contacted and what those authorities said they would do, but he didn’t return my voicemail this time or my text.
These are important questions, because Orr didn’t put any sort of penalties or enforcement provisions in the law he sponsored.
But why not give it a go in court? Let’s put Orr’s vaccine passport ban to the test and see who passes.
Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for the Alabama Media Group, 2020 winner of the Walker Stone Award, winner of the 2021 SPJ award for opinion writing, and 2021 winner of the Molly Ivins prize for political commentary.
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