DECATUR, Ala. – A U.S. District judge on Tuesday said that United Launch Alliance is not required to accept the religious and medical exemption requests filed by five employees in response to the company’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Hunter Creger, Benjamin Eastman, Sherrie Maine, Lance Norwood and Zachary Breland filed a lawsuit against ULA after they were placed on unpaid administrative leave for refusing to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
According to court documents, the five employees had filed religious exemption requests on the basis that their “religious beliefs bar [them] from taking a vaccine that was manufactured and/or tested on cell lines derived from stem cells of aborted fetuses, as all of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are.”
Maine and Breland had also filed medical exemption requests. Breland cited Generalized Anxiety Disorder as a reason for not being able to get vaccinated. Maine’s medical exemption cited “natural immunity based on recent lab tests.”
Both medical exemption requests and all five religious exemption requests were denied by ULA.
In a federal lawsuit, the five employees claimed that ULA violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and a newly-passed Alabama state law that requires employers to “liberally construe” in favor of employees who filed exemption requests to vaccine requirements.
Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Abdul K. Kallon denied the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order that would have prevented ULA from implementing its vaccine mandate.
In responding to the employees’ claims that ULA violated Title VII and the ADA, Judge Kallon said that those provisions only require employees to provide reasonable accommodations to employees if the accommodations do not place an “undue burden” on the employer. Kallon said ULA provided at least 10 reasons why providing the exemptions would place an undue burden on the company, including the fact that they may not be awarded federal contracts if their employees are not vaccinated.
Judge Kallon also dismissed the plaintiff’s claims that they were entitled to legal relief from the mandate due to Alabama’s state law. Kallon didn’t explicitly disagree with the claim that ULA is violating the law, but he pointed out that law requires employees who feel their requests have been unfairly denied appeal to administrative law judges appointed by the Alabama Secretary of Labor before filing a private lawsuit.
He also says that the plaintiff’s interpretation of certain sections of the state law is incorrect.
While Judge Kallon says that those reasons alone are enough to deny the injunction, he continued to explain why the employees fail to meet the three other required factors to provide a preliminary injunction. He says that they failed to: (1) prove that their exemption denial has caused them “irreparable harm”; (2) prove that the harm to the employees outweighs the harm that a preliminary injunction would cause the company; prove that the injunction “would not be adverse the public interest”.
Judge Kallon argued that in fact, keeping the vaccine mandate in place is serving the public interest by maintaining the health and wellbeing of its employees and therefore allowing those employees to remain employed.
The memorandum opinion also includes a section in which Judge Kallon points out that more than 750,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 and that community transmission in Morgan County is “substantial”.
ULA said in a statement Thursday morning that the health and safety of its team members has been the company’s top priority since the pandemic began.
“We appreciate the court’s acknowledgement that ULA took appropriate steps to protect its workforce and to align with the multiple contract modifications that were received from the customers that require all ULA employees to become vaccinated,” the company’s statement read. “We understand these are tremendously challenging times, and we are committed to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, while continuing to support the nation’s most critical missions.”