Federal appeals court rules United Airlines vaccine mandate harms workers’ religious rights

Decision sends case back to trial judge to consider a preliminary injunction blocking the mandate.
United Airlines flight departs
United Airlines flight departs
(Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

A federal appeals court has ruled that United Airlines’ vaccine mandate wrongly coerced employees to get the shot over their religious beliefs, and pilots and flight attendants may be entitled to a preliminary injunction protecting them from the mandate. 

“Plaintiffs are being subjected to ongoing coercion based on their religious beliefs. That coercion is harmful in and of itself and cannot be remedied after the fact,” a three-judge panel of the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2-1 decision this week.

“We REVERSE the district court’s conclusion that plaintiffs have not demonstrated irreparable injury absent an injunction, and we REMAND for consideration of the remaining preliminary injunction factor,” the court said.

The airline’s mandate permits religious exemption applications but some employees who get them are still forced to stop working and forego pay and benefits in what amounts to an unpaid leave scenario.

Some employees sued to challenge the mandate, but a federal judge in Texas refused to grant them a preliminary injunction.

The appeals court decision sends the case back to the trial judge to reconsider the injunction, saying the airlines implementation of its mandate left employees with religious objections in an untenable position.

“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,” the appeals court concluded. “In other words, United is actively coercing employees to abandon their convictions.”