Judge open to religious discrimination claim on vaccine mandate
State Police refused to accommodate religious objectors
AFTER GOV. CHARLIE BAKER instituted an executive branch COVID-19 vaccine mandate, 156 State Police union members asked for religious exemptions. All of them were denied.
In seven cases, however, the State Police determined that the officers had sincerely held religious beliefs that prevented them from getting vaccinated against COVID. Yet, the police denied their exemption requests anyway because accommodating their unvaccinated status would cause “undue hardship” to the department.
So far, multiple judges have upheld Baker’s vaccine mandate. But on Wednesday, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Christine Roach gave some support to employees’ concerns about how the mandate has been implemented. In a limited ruling, she forbade the administration from firing the seven employees, who are now on unpaid leave, as the litigation continues. She ruled that the officers met their preliminary burden in alleging religious discrimination and have some likelihood of success on the merits of their case.
“While we are grateful for Judge Roach’s decision we are disappointed it was needed to begin with,” said Patrick McNamara, president of the State Police Association of Massachusetts, in a statement. “Throughout this process the Baker Administration has continued to show they are unwilling to negotiate or accommodate Troopers who have sincerely held religious beliefs. We hope this ruling will encourage a change in his position on mandated vaccines and to bring all of our Troopers back to work.”
Baker’s mandate required all executive branch employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or obtain a religious or medical exemption. Roach made clear that her ruling is not about the validity of the mandate, which has been upheld, or the collective bargaining process, which has also been an issue in other cases. Rather, it is a narrowly tailored ruling related to the State Police implementation of the mandate, in which they found that the seven troopers had a religious reason for rejecting the vaccine, but they could not still be accommodated.
State Police superintendent Christopher Mason said the only accommodation that could be made would be to put the unvaccinated officers in an administrative role where they did not come into contact with the public or their colleagues. Under state law, he said, state police officers can be reassigned at any time to different units, assignments, or geographic locations, including emergency duties, so these officers need to be available to be placed in public-facing positions. Mason argued that providing accommodations would create a staffing shortage that would undermine the department’s ability to respond to emergencies and undermine public trust in the department.
The department did grant three medical exemptions, and eight other temporary medical exemptions, which involved officers who planned to be vaccinated once they were medically cleared.
Roach wrote that there is no other case so far that has balanced these competing interests. Prior cases that gave law enforcement management discretion in discrimination cases did not have to balance that discretion against “bona fide religious exercise and the bodily integrity potentially implicated by these facts.” “The strongly competing interests at issue here compel caution in all respects,” she wrote.Roach wrote, quoting from a ruling in an earlier case, that allowing the officers to be terminated creates a “Hobson’s choice, in other words, an apparently free choice with no real alternative,” which is why she was forbidding their termination as the case proceeds through the courts.
The next hearing will be scheduled for April.