A preliminary injunction hearing has been set for November 15, 2021, in the Middle District Court of Florida for a recently filed class-action lawsuit on behalf of military members, federal workers, and federal contractors who have been mandated to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. The plaintiffs have been told that they must receive the vaccine or face a dishonorable discharge or termination. The case is now pending before Judge Steven D. Merryday, a Bush appointee.
Don't give up!!!
"Plaintiffs have all submitted religious exemption requests. The military plaintiffs are being told there are NO RELIGIOUS exemptions, and merely submitting such a request will subject them to dishonorable discharge."https://t.co/askiUsXJYH pic.twitter.com/HiN3vKDuxy
— LauraJ (@246LJ) October 22, 2021
The lawsuit was filed by Liberty Council, and it covers members of these groups who have submitted religious exemption requests and have been told that no exemptions will be given. This is one of several lawsuits challenging the vaccine mandates that are currently working their way through the courts.
Liberty Counsel Lawsuit May Have Strong Legal Footing
Americans enjoy broad religious protections under the First Amendment and other federal and state laws and statutes. Employees in particular who have sincerely held religious beliefs are entitled to reasonable accommodations for employer policies that they cannot adhere to under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VII states that employers must provide a reasonable accommodation (to employees with sincerely held religious beliefs) unless it would subject them to an “undue hardship” to provide said accommodation. Employers are also required to engage in an “interactive process” to explore potential reasonable accommodations before denying a religious exemption.
The contention that failure to receive a Covid vaccine would cause an undue hardship to government agencies is highly contestable for a number of reasons. First of all, many of those requesting an exemption already have natural immunity from a prior Covid infection, which it can be strongly argued gives them at least as much or more protection from the illness than the vaccine.
But even if any of those requesting a religious exemption do not have natural immunity, it is still a major stretch to argue that accommodating their request would present their employer with an undue hardship. Covid-19 is an illness from which roughly 99% of those infected fully recover, and if the plaintiffs have been working safely all this time (even through the height of the pandemic) without a vaccination, it is hard to argue that they could not continue to perform their duties in a safe manner.
It is important to note that Title VII does not apply to uniformed military members, but the Liberty Counsel says that these members are still covered under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), and the Supreme Court has held the following with regards to the RFRA:
That statute prohibits the federal government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion unless it demonstrates that doing so both furthers a compelling governmental interest and represents the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. Because RFRA operates as a kind of super statute, displacing the normal operation of other federal laws, it might supersede Title VII’s commands in appropriate cases.
The preliminary injunction hearing comes amidst looming deadlines for military members, federal employees and contractors to receive their Covid-19 vaccinations or be separated from their employer.
The Navy and Marine Corps active-duty members have until November 28, and reservists have until December 28. Air Force active-duty members have until November 2, and Army active-duty members have until December 15. Reservists in both branches have until December 2, and National Guard members have until June 30, 2022. Coast Guard members have until November 22. And federal employees and contractors have until November 8.
Navy order released this week says all active-duty Navy personnel who don’t get a COVID-19 vaccine by an upcoming deadline will be discharged—with possible financial repercussions as well. https://t.co/u1Zenc62gM
— JulesUSA (@JulesUSA6) October 18, 2021
If this lawsuit is successful, it could help establish a precedent that can also be applied to other workers, such as those working in state governments and the private sector. Employees with deeply held religious beliefs enjoy a wide scope of protections under federal and most state laws, and many people believe that it is far past time for the courts to weigh in and reaffirm these rights before too many more workers are forced to leave their jobs.