Biden's Federal Employee Vaccine Mandate Faces a New Religious Discrimination Challenge
Enforcement of the COVID-19 vaccine requirement is paused, but a group of 10,000 feds is hedging its bets in trying to strike it down for good.
A group consisting of nearly 10,000 federal employees has launched a new lawsuit against the Biden administration for its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, saying the currently paused requirement violates multiple laws that protect religious freedom.
Feds for Medical Freedom brought the complaint against the State Department in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, with more than a dozen employees there signed on as plaintiffs. State has violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by delaying religious accommodations and allowing discrimination to take place, the group said. It also argued the mandate violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which places significant restrictions on when the federal government can infringe on individuals’ religious beliefs. While the Biden administration has allowed for religious and medical exemptions to its mandate, the plaintiffs said the implementation of that policy has led to hostile work environments and negative career impacts.
The group previously filed a lawsuit challenging the mandate that focused primarily on the president’s constitutional authority and the Administrative Procedures Act. That effort led to a nationwide injunction on the mandate last year, with enforcement remaining paused as an appeals court is reviewing the case.
In its new case, Feds for Medical Freedom alleged even unvaccinated employees at State who have received a religious exemption from the mandate have been left out of trainings, official events and balls, meetings and team-building exercises. They have been “berated,” harassed, coerced and ridiculed, according to the complaint. Requirements for unvaccinated workers to wear masks, quarantine at new posts or to enter vaccination status into a public calendar have outed employees who sought exemptions and led to further mistreatment, the employees said.
Several of the plaintiffs said they never received a decision on their exemption request, causing more stress and uncertainty. The adjudication process is paused across government as the mandate awaits resolution in court, but Feds for Medical Freedom said the delayed accommodation violated the Civil Rights Act. It said the same of the differential treatment, lost opportunities to travel and requirements to wear masks and test for COVID.
After initially allowing for testing policies that focused on unvaccinated employees, the administration in August reversed that policy and required any testing effort to be applied uniformly regardless of vaccination status. The Biden administration has instructed agencies to follow community case levels to determine their own mask wearing strategies. The Veterans Affairs Department announced on Friday it will only require masks in its medical facilities in high-risk areas or in regions where transmission is particularly high, dropping its previous universal requirement.
“The department has burdened the exercise of religion by forcing religious believers to accept invasive and painful testing, stigmatizing masking, loss of professional opportunities, unequal accommodation procedures, and a culture of harassment and ridicule because of their disfavored religious beliefs,” Feds for Medical Freedom wrote in its complaint.
It added that State has taken “an uneven, lackadaisical approach to issuing religious accommodations, while at the same time ratcheting up pressure on those who have expressed religious belief to vaccinate, despite their convictions.”
The group is seeking injunctive relief as well as monetary damages. State did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit last year briefly reinstated the mandate on the grounds that federal employees must take their employment complaints to a specific entity such as the Merit Systems Protection Board or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The court subsequently agreed to rehear the case en banc, which once again paused the mandate’s enforcement.