By BETHANY BLANKLEY
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) – The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week ruled 2-1 that a lower district court must reconsider its decision when it rejected a request for injunction by plaintiffs to halt United Airlines’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The court’s ruling returns the case to U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman in Fort Worth, Texas.
Last November, Judge Pittman rejected a request for an injunction to block United Airlines from placing employees on unpaid leave while the court considers the case. The judge found the plaintiffs failed to “show they would suffer imminent, irreparable harm.”
However, the majority on a Fifth Circuit panel disagreed. Two judges, Jennifer Walker Elrod and Andrew S. Oldham, ruled United’s policy forces employees to choose “between pay and adhering to religious convictions,” which violates federal law.
The employees who remain on unpaid leave are “actively being coerced to violate their religious convictions,” which is an irreparable harm, they ruled.
United Airlines, which is headquartered in Chicago, became the first major U.S. airlines carrier to mandate the COVID-19 shots for its roughly 67,000 employees as a condition of employment. Employees were initially told to get the COVID-19 shots by Sept. 27, 2021, or face termination.
Last August, Liberty Counsel sent a demand letter to United Airlines on behalf of scores of airline employees whose religious exemptions weren’t granted.
By December, the airline was facing a pilot shortage because not all employees would comply with the mandate.
At a Dec. 15, 2021, U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said, “We have almost 100 airplanes effectively grounded right now — regional aircraft, because there’s not enough pilots to fly them, which means we just can’t, at the moment, fly to all the small communities that we would like to.”
Mr. Kirby defended United’s mandate, saying at the time that roughly 200 employees had been fired, including six pilots; 80 were on unpaid leave out of roughly 13,000.
The Fifth Circuit judges wrote, “United has presented plaintiffs with two options: Violate their religious convictions or lose all pay and benefits indefinitely. That is an impossible choice for plaintiffs who want to remain faithful but must put food on the table. In other words, United is actively coercing employees to abandon their convictions.”