A federal judge on Tuesday ruled in favor of United Launch Alliance and against five of its Decatur employees who claimed the company had illegally applied a COVID-19 vaccine mandate to them despite their requests for religious and medical exemptions.
The 24-page ruling relies heavily on ULA’s claim, based on a Sept. 8 executive order by President Joe Biden, that it risked losing federal launch contracts if it granted vaccine exemptions. That did not sit well with one of the plaintiffs, laser weld technician Hunter Creger.
“I don’t think it’s the federal government’s place to tell me what to do with my body. I think it’s egregious that they would force me to do something in order for me to keep my job. Last I checked, I’m an American. I shouldn’t have to put up with things like that,” Creger said Tuesday.
At issue was the employees’ request that the court block ULA from terminating or placing on unpaid leave any employee who refused the vaccine after seeking a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine mandate. The court ruled the plaintiffs had not shown any of the elements necessary to obtain an injunction against ULA.
The employees argued the company violated federal law by failing to accommodate their religious beliefs and alleged disabilities, and violated a recently passed state law that purports to prevent an employer from terminating or reducing the pay of an employee seeking a religious or medical exemption from a vaccine mandate until the employee has had an opportunity to exhaust an appeal process.
U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon ruled that even if the employees’ religious beliefs were sincere and their disabilities — one claimed she had COVID antibodies and another claimed an anxiety disorder — were legally sufficient, ULA had shown that it would suffer undue hardship if it accommodated the vaccine exemption requests.
“United Launch has plausibly claimed that accommodating the plaintiffs’ requests for religious (and disability) exemptions would result in an increased financial burden, disruptions in labor, the potential loss of government contracts, and heightened health risks to employees and customers,” Kallon wrote.
Creger said the federal government was wrong to require contractors to mandate vaccines, and ULA was wrong to deny requests for exemptions from the mandate.
“Working there was my dream job,” he said. “From the day I decided I wanted to be a welder, I wanted to weld the biggest, the best and the most expensive things, and at the end of that trail was aerospace — building rockets and spacecraft. I ended up being fortunate enough and blessed enough to do that.
“But that has been ripped away from me by the tyrants that run this country and the tyrants that run that facility.”
Creger said he was expecting a job offer Tuesday from another north Alabama aerospace company that, despite having federal contracts, was willing to waive the vaccine requirement and accept his request for religious accommodation. He said he is currently employed at ULA, but has been on unpaid leave since late October.
Creger and the other four plaintiffs all said their religious beliefs barred them from “taking a vaccine that was manufactured and/or tested on cell lines derived from stem cells of aborted fetuses, as all of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are.”
Kallon ruled that ULA was only required to grant religious accommodation if it could do so without undue hardship. The company had shown undue hardship stemming from these and other factors:
• Numerous requests for exemptions from the vaccine mandate.
• The need to ensure a safe workplace.
• The cost and administrative burden of weekly COVID testing for those declining the vaccine.
• Limitations on the availability of testing materials.
• The requirement by the federal government that contractors use vaccinated employees.
• The need for employees to work on-site and collaborate, rather than work remotely.
• The number of prior COVID cases, quarantines, hospitalizations and deaths among ULA employees.
“United Launch is not forcing employees to get vaccinated against their will. Rather, the vaccine mandate calls only for employees to look for a new job if they decline vaccination,” Kallon wrote. “And though the plaintiffs certainly may be harmed by losing their jobs at United Launch, this harm does not outweigh the potential harms that United Launch may face if it is forced to retain unvaccinated employees without valid bases for accommodations.”
Kallon also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that ULA violated a state law that was passed in special session and signed into law Nov. 5, after ULA’s vaccine mandate took effect. The law allows employees to appeal denials of their exemption requests to an administrative law judge appointed by the Alabama Department of Labor and forbids employers from terminating or reducing the pay of employees while the appeals are pending.
“The plaintiffs overlook, however, that the Act, by its terms, ‘does not create or imply a private cause of action for employees who are terminated after refusing to receive vaccination mandated by their employer,’” Kallon wrote.
Kallon said that whatever rights were provided by the state law, the employees could not pursue them in court except as an appeal after an adverse decision by the administrative law judge. While all five employees say they have begun the state appeal process, an administrative law judge has not issued a ruling. That ruling is required within 30 days of the date the Alabama Department of Labor issued rules governing appeals, which it completed Friday.
Kallon’s order also noted that injunctions should not be granted if they are against the public interest.
“COVID-19 has killed well over three-quarters of a million people in the United States. Over 16,000 of these deaths have occurred in Alabama,” he wrote. “In Morgan County, where United Launch Alliance’s Decatur facility is located, the current level of COVID-19 transmission in the community is ‘substantial.’ … There is unquestionably a public interest in allowing companies to promote the safety and welfare of their employees by taking preventative measures against COVID-19 … .”
In a statement Tuesday evening, ULA said, "Since the beginning of the pandemic, the health and safety of the ULA team and everyone in our buildings have been at the forefront of our COVID-19 response. We appreciate the court’s acknowledgement that ULA took appropriate steps to protect its workforce and to align with the multiple contract modifications that were received from the customers that require all ULA employees to become vaccinated. We understand these are tremendously challenging times, and we are committed to ensure a safe and healthy work environment, while continuing to support the nation’s most critical missions."
Matthew Clark of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberties, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said he is considering whether to appeal Kallon’s decision, and that his clients are also seeking redress from the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and through the Alabama Department of Labor.
“We are considering our options, but we look forward to continuing to represent our clients as they fight for their jobs, their medical freedom and their religious liberty,” Clark said.