Courts Generally Permissive of Vaccine Mandates, Exemption and Accommodation Policies

October 22, 2021

As lawsuits against COVID-19 vaccine mandates—including those imposed by employers—proliferate around the country, most courts continue to be generally permissive of such policies.  Such cases may offer a preview of legal challenges to the federal contractor vaccine mandate and the forthcoming federal vaccine mandate for larger private sector employers.

Green light for vaccine mandates:  Beginning with a June decision in which a Texas judge denied a bid by hospital workers to block their employer’s vaccine mandate, most courts have ruled vaccine mandates to be lawful, whether imposed by employers or by local or state governments.  Recently, judges in Oregon, Colorado, Maine, and Massachusetts have all denied attempts by groups of workers to rescind or halt employer or state or local government vaccine mandates. 

Courts have generally deferred to employers and state governments where employees have challenged policies associated with religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. 

  • In a recent case in Maine, employees challenged the state’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, which did not allow for religious exemptions.  A unanimous First Circuit panel upheld a Maine federal judge’s earlier decision that the policy was constitutional, finding that the state is acting rationally to protect the health of Maine residents and ease the burden on its hospitals. 

  • A similar challenge to a Boston hospital group’s vaccine mandate, in which employees alleged that their employer was excessively denying religious exemption requests without proper consideration, was also denied by a Boston federal judge who found the policy to be lawful. 

  • Finally, a federal court in Colorado ruled that United Airlines’ vaccine mandate, which places employees with religious exemptions on unpaid leave, was lawful. 

Two exceptions:  Although most courts have been generally permissive of both vaccine mandates and associated exemption and accommodation policies, at least two courts have halted vaccine mandates over religious exemption issues. 

  • In direct contradiction with the Colorado ruling noted above, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked United Airlines from placing employees with religious exemptions to the company’s vaccine mandate on unpaid leave, saying that the policy could force workers to become vaccinated in violation of their religious beliefs or face indefinite unpaid leave. 

  • Meanwhile, a district judge in New York temporarily blocked the state’s vaccine mandate for workers with religious exemptions, because the policy did not allow for such exemptions. The decision is in direct conflict with the Maine decision noted above, and the issue of whether vaccine mandates must provide religious exemptions could reach the Supreme Court. 

Outlook:  The increasing number of judicial decisions on vaccine mandates offers a potential preview of legal challenges to the federal contractor vaccine mandate and the forthcoming federal vaccine mandate for larger private sector employers, although the federal mandates present somewhat different legal issues.  In general, employers can expect courts to continue to be friendly to vaccine mandates, with the issue of whether such mandates must provide for religious exemptions being potentially decided by a notably conservative Supreme Court.  In the meantime, HR Policy has asked the EEOC to provide greater clarity on exemption and accommodation issues, among others.  

HR Policy will kick off its Future Workplace Policy Council Fall Webinar Series with a discussion on vaccine mandates and other workplace safety issues during the COVID-19 pandemic next Wednesday, October 27th, at 12:00PM ET.  Find more details and registration information here: Workplace Safety: Novel Considerations in the Ongoing COVID Pandemic.