Mass General Brigham Can Suspend Workers Without Pay For Refusing Coronavirus Vaccine, Judge Says

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Mass General Brigham can continue to deny religious and medical exemptions for the business’s coronavirus vaccine mandate, for the time being, a federal judge from the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled late Wednesday morning.

Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV said the hospital was within its right to try to provide safe facilities during a pandemic that has killed more Americans than World War II. He denied the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction but said he wants more information about the hospital’s vaccination exemption application process before making a final ruling.

This comes in response to a policy that the hospital put in place back in June. It decided that its 80,000 employees would need to require proof that they had received at least one shot against coronavirus by Wednesday or be placed on unpaid leave; people who don’t get their first shot by November 5 will be fired.

Mass General Brigham, in theory, offered religious and medical exemptions for the vaccine. However, they denied 229 requests made on those grounds in a process that the plaintiffs in Various People v.Mass General Brigham say was unfair.

Ryan McLane, attorney for the plaintiffs in this case, argued that Mass General Brigham didn’t respect people’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

He cited the inability of one woman to provide all of the evidence she had of her sincerely held religious belief as an example of the company not being accommodating.

“She provided us with a letter from her priest later, a personal statement, notices from her congregation’s publication, and a marriage license that showed she was married by the same priest that wrote her the letter seven years ago…” he said. “None of that was an option with the online form. The defendant then swiftly denied the employee’s religious accommodations.”

He cited another person who had been granted a flu shot exemption for eight straight years but was denied a religious exemption in this case.

He also said that the plaintiffs got emails saying they could not appeal these decisions, even though they didn’t have a chance to provide all of the information they had.

The judge pressed McLane on the merits of a religious exemption. He noted that a sincerely held religious belief does not have to make sense to other people, but noted a couple of times that no major religions oppose coronavirus vaccination. 

At one point, he asked McLane: “Putting the process aside for a moment, if someone professes that they don’t want the vaccine because they’re Catholic, would it be O..K for the hospital to say the church is not opposed to the vaccine?”

McLane noted that the Catholic woman he previously mentioned came from a congregation where her priest said getting vaccinated was a matter of choice. It’s a different perspective than the one given by Pope Francis, who has urged people to get vaccinated and called getting vaccinated against coronavirus “an act of love”.

Although it did not come up during the hearing, one of the primary arguments that people of faith use against coronavirus vaccination is the use of aborted fetal cells in the creation of vaccines — although the vaccines themselves do not contain aborted fetal cell lines.

At another point during the hearing, Saylor noted that even the Christian Science church, known for opposing certain modern medicines, does not oppose coronavirus vaccination. The church’s web site confirms it.

He also said it’s worth noting whether or not the people who want exemptions get exemptions for all vaccines or just this one when evaluating sincerely held beliefs — and the types of medicines that these medical workers would administer to other people.

And of possible medical exemptions, he said that there would likely have to be an inability, not an unwillingness, to take the vaccine for it to count.

Kiley Belliveau, attorney for the defendant in the case, argued on the ground that the process was fair and that rulings saying that governments can’t implement certain vaccine mandates wouldn’t apply here.

This is not a case involving state action nor does it involve Constitutional claims like many of the cases that have been litigated on this issue. This is not a case in which… there was no religious exemption whatsoever.

“This is a case involving a private employer with a workforce that has been nothing short of heroic during the pandemic. And that strives to deliver excellent care to vulnerable patients every day.”

She argued that the vaccine is safe and effective and that to increase the vaccination rate, a mandate was necessary. She said that this increases workplace safety for employees, patients, and visitors and that they were following the advice of public health experts.

Early in the hearing, McLane argued that if people got the exemption, they would still wear protective equipment (including face shields), provide negative tests, and  take precautionary measures against spreading the virus. He also noted that visitors don’t have to be vaccinated to come to the hospital.

Saylor said he will likely have another hearing on November 2 to further discuss the matter.


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