President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for federal employees was blocked Thursday in federal appeals court.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans reversed a ruling by a three-judge panel of the same court that had upheld the vaccination requirement. At a rare en banc rehearing, the full court rejected the government’s argument that courts don’t have jurisdiction over pre-enforcement challenges to Biden’s vaccine mandate.
The effect of the court’s decision is to uphold a preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge in January 2022 that blocked the mandate. At the time, the Biden administration said nearly 98% of covered employees had already been vaccinated.
A panel of the 5th Circuit had briefly reinstated the mandate, reasoning that federal employees should have taken their complaint to administrative agencies that deal with employment issues, like the Merit Systems Protection Board or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, instead of suing in court. But the full court agreed to hear the matter en banc, which again paused the mandate’s enforcement.
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Judge Andrew Oldham, a Trump appointee, wrote the majority opinion. The full 5th Circuit concluded that federal employees could take their case to court because they were challenging Biden’s authority on constitutional grounds. The court upheld the preliminary injunction blocking the vaccine mandate and now the federal employees’ case will proceed in district court.
“We hasten to emphasize that this case only involves a preliminary injunction. The preliminary injunction’s purpose is to maintain the status quo until the parties have the chance to adjudicate the merits,” Oldham wrote.
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“When the parties proceed to the merits in the district court, the plaintiffs will have to prove that whatever injunction they request is broad enough to protect against their proven injuries and no broader. And the Government will have another chance to show that any permanent injunction should be narrower than the preliminary one. And both sides will have to grapple with the White House’s announcement that the COVID emergency will finally end on May 11, 2023,” the court said.
Biden issued the vaccine mandate in September 2021, instructing that all federal employees were required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or face disciplinary action, including losing their jobs. There were limited exceptions for religious and medical reasons, but opponents of the mandate say those that requested exemptions faced hostile work environments and negative career impacts.
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Feds for Medical Freedom, the group that challenged Biden’s authority to mandate vaccination on constitutional grounds, has filed another lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia alleging the State Department violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act by denying religious accommodations and allowing discrimination to take place.
“The department has burdened the exercise of religion by forcing religious believers to accept invasive and painful testing, stigmatizing masking, loss of professional opportunities, unequal accommodation procedures, and a culture of harassment and ridicule because of their disfavored religious beliefs,” the group wrote in its complaint.
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The lawsuit alleges the State Department has taken “an uneven, lackadaisical approach to issuing religious accommodations, while at the same time ratcheting up pressure on those who have expressed religious belief to vaccinate, despite their convictions.”
The Department of State did not immediately respond to a request for comment.