United Airlines responds to employee lawsuit over vaccine policy by agreeing to allow religious and medical exemptions

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In the face of an employee lawsuit over its austere vaccine mandate, United Airlines has now agreed to temporarily halt the implementation of the policy in order to allow employees the opportunity to file for religious and medical exemptions.

Quick Facts

In August, United Airlines said in a statement that more than half of its 67,000 U.S.-based employees who weren’t vaccinated would be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by September 27, but said that they would allow exceptions for medical and religious purposes.

However, employees said that hasn’t been the reality. In response, lawyers representing six employees recently filed a lawsuit against the airline, arguing that United hasn’t approved those exemption requests. Instead, they charged, the airline offered unpaid leave for those who do not wish to get the vaccine.

“We filed this lawsuit to protect the rights of honest, hardworking United Airlines employees who have religious or medical reasons not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” stated Mark Paloetta, a partner at Schaerr-Jaffe representing the plaintiff, in a statement. “United has refused to grant any accommodations and these employees are scared by United’s draconian mandate that forces them to either get the vaccine or lose their job. That’s unacceptable in America,”

Paloetta argued that United’s refusal to grant religious or medical exemptions to employees seeking to opt-out of the vaccine mandate violates the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

 “The most effective thing we can do as an airline to protect the health and safety of all our employees is to require the vaccine, excluding the small number of people who have sought an exemption,” United officials said in explaining its reasoning for the vaccine mandate.

United went on to say that the company was reviewing the employees’ complaint, but they believe it is “without merit.”

According to a memo released by United and obtained by the Associated Press, employees who routinely come into contact with passengers, such as flight attendants, gate agents, and pilots, and whose exemptions are approved, will face indefinite unpaid leave starting October 2. These workers won’t be allowed back on the job until the pandemic “meaningfully recedes.”

The irony of this statement is that many prominent health officials, including former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottileb, believe that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t actually end or “meaningfully recede” but will transition into an endemic phase. An endemic virus has features similar to the common cold or flu virus, which persists every year, but is far easier to manage and control. In other words, no matter how many mitigation measures are implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, both by state and federal governments and by private businesses, the virus that causes COVID-19 is never completely going away.

In New York, a similar case is playing out regarding the state’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. Seventeen healthcare professionals had filed suit, objecting on religious grounds based on the vaccine’s use of cell lines from aborted children during its development, but a federal judge has since temporarily blocked enforcement of the mandate due to concerns that the state was not accepting religious exemptions.

Christopher Ferrara, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, which represents the plaintiffs, said that New York is trying to “slam shut an escape hatch from an unconstitutional vaccine mandate…. They are doing this while knowing that many people have sincere religious objections to vaccines that were tested, developed, or produced with cell lines derived from aborted children.”

While a company like United Airlines setting its own vaccine policy independent of government regulation may seem like a mild concern on its face, the precedent of denying religious exemptions for any reason poses a grave threat to individual and religious liberty. Besides New York, other states, including California, Connecticut, and Maine, are either imposing new COVID-19 vaccine mandates and/or are denying religious exemptions for those seeking to opt out of the vaccine. Many of these states are also facing additional legal challenges from those who have been refused exemptions or been punished for applying for the exemptions.

It seems that, at the very least, the concerns over religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are destined to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. But as companies and governments take a coercive, even hostile approach to forcing employees and others to take a shot they don’t want or which violates their conscience, you have to wonder if these officials have ever considered whether the means they’ve chosen will really achieve their stated ends, which presumably is to keep people safe, get the economy back on track, and help mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

As the ACLU warned almost prophetically 13 years ago, this type of hard-nosed aggressive approach is only going to “suppress individual rights,” be less effective in controlling and containing a pandemic, and create an environment whereby “people, rather than the disease, become the enemy.”