Fifth Circuit Court rejects United Airlines request for rehearing, leaves injunction in place on vaccine mandate

Of all of the violations of Americans’ constitutionally-protected fundamental rights by governments and private corporations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, making vaccination a mandatory requirement for employment was among the most egregious.

Such mandates, particularly from corporations, have the effect of “coerc[ing] its employees into violating their religious beliefs, said the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in denying a rehearing request from United Airlines in its legal battle against employees who objected to the company’s vaccine mandate, Breitbart reported.

The entire Fifth Circuit voted 13-4 on Thursday to reject a petition from United Airlines for an en banc rehearing of the court’s prior panel decision that had ruled in favor of unvaccinated employees who had been punished by the company for their claimed religious beliefs or medical exemptions.

United blocked from enforcing the vaccine mandate, punishing unvaccinated

In 2021, Breitbart noted, United Airlines imposed a strict COVID vaccine mandate on all 67,000 of its employees that threatened termination or other punishments for those who refused to abide by the mandate, and some employees were indeed fired for refusing to get vaccinated.

Around 2,200 employees requested and received an exemption from the mandate due to their religious beliefs or medical conditions, but those employees were subsequently placed on “indefinite unpaid leave” with a suspension of benefits, which resulted in a lawsuit that claimed the company had violated the rights of its employees under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A district court judge had initially sided with United and ruled against a request from the employees for a preliminary injunction to block the mandate-related punitive actions and allow them to fully return to work, but a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit in February reversed that decision and granted the preliminary injunction due to the “irreparable harm” the company had inflicted upon its employees.

That led to the current petition from United for a rehearing on the matter by the full bench of the Fifth Circuit to override the panel’s February decision, but as noted, the full court voted 13-4 against rehearing the matter and left the injunction in place.

Corporate vaccine mandates coerce employees to violate personal or religious beliefs

The full Fifth Circuit did not publish its reasoning for that decision, but Judge James Ho did author a concurring opinion that likely provided some insight into why the court’s majority had voted overwhelmingly in the way that it did.

Judge Ho noted that with regard to the sincere objections of some employees against United’s vaccine mandate, “United chose not to fire employees who refused the vaccine, but instead put them on indefinite unpaid leave, and made clear that the only way they could return to their jobs was to be vaccinated. It did so for one simple reason: to coerce its employees into violating their religious beliefs — and what’s worse, to do so irrevocably and permanently.”

“Being placed on indefinite unpaid leave because your employer doesn’t like your religious beliefs is obviously an adverse employment action and an actionable claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he continued. “And you’ve obviously suffered irreparable injury when you’re forced to violate your faith in order to get your job back.”

“The injury would be entirely reparable by money damages if it was just about a loss of money. But it’s not,” Ho explained. “It’s about a loss of faith. And it’s about a crisis of conscience. You’re being coerced into sacrificing your faith in order to keep your job. No measure of damages makes sense in this scenario. To keep your job, you must violate your faith. How much money would it take for you to sell out your faith?”

The judge went on to decry at length the growing trend of corporations seeking to impose certain cultural values on the broader society, the threat that trend posed to employees and individuals with different value sets, and how courts would inevitably have to address the issue. He ultimately concluded, “We know what this new corporate trend is doing to employees. It’s violating the religious convictions of workers across the country. And in cases like this, the injuries are irreparable. So unlike the dissent, I’m grateful that our court is taking the action it is today.

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