It’s one thing to mock COVID vaccine objectors. Must we rob their livelihoods, too?

·4 min read

In an age in which religiosity is waning, the notion that a person would forgo a medical treatment, perhaps even a life-saving one, because of sincerely held faith must be difficult to understand.

That’s one charitable explanation for the often uncharitable treatment of individuals who have chosen not to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

But even worse than the derision such people face in the public square are the efforts of employers — now at the behest of the federal government — to rob them of their livelihoods unless they comply.

A court has prevented one such employer, United Airlines, from further implementing its plan to put unvaccinated employees — who have sought and received an exemption — on unpaid leave, pending further hearing on the matter.

The six plaintiffs present thoughtful and sincere objections to personal use of the vaccines, several due to concerns about the use of aborted fetal stem-cell lines to test the vaccines, which they believe violate their religious convictions.

Other exemption requests include medical concerns based on reactions to previous shots. Several of the plaintiffs have also recovered from COVID and probably still possess natural immunity.

United notified each of the six plaintiffs that their religious or medical exemption request was granted, but the only accommodation allowed was indefinite unpaid leave, including loss of seniority status, healthcare and other benefits — effectively termination.

Proponents of vaccine mandates like to point to Jacobson v. Massachusetts, a century-old Supreme Court case (later used to uphold a eugenics law, among other things) as justification for complete deference to government orders in the midst of a public health crisis.

But even the vaccine mandate at issue in that case offered an escape valve: Those objecting to taking a vaccine could pay a modest fine and move on with their lives.

According to the United complaint, the employees all readily agreed to other forms of mitigation, such as regular testing, distancing and mask-wearing — measures public health officials for months have insisted reduce viral spread.

United offered no such escape valve, but rather an adverse employment action that constitutes both religious and disability discrimination.

Some conservatives insist that employer vaccine mandates are perfectly acceptable and that any state attempts to halt them (such as Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent vaccine mandate ban) are an affront to liberty. But it’s clear that federally regulated businesses such as United, whose relationship with Washington is existential, are not taking such measures for the good of their employees and passengers.

If they were, the mandate would apply to employees outside the U.S., as well as airplane passengers. Instead, they are doing the bidding of the federal government.

United’s behavior, which included disparaging remarks about unvaccinated employees by its CEO and attempts to “out” unvaccinated employees through company mailers, has been particularly atrocious. But as more large companies seek to preemptively appease the federal government (which has yet to release its alleged “emergency” rule on vaccinations) with a heavy-handed approach, we can expect more such cases to arise.

Meanwhile, the rationale for such mandates — that the vaccines prevent illness and therefore spread — is beginning to crumble.

We now know that vaccinated people can both get and transmit COVID.

The CDC has shown with its own data that the current variant infects vaccinated people who “have measurable viral loads similar to those who are unvaccinated and infected with the variant.”

Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the United case, has compellingly argued that the vaccines provide a private benefit — protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death — but their inability to prevent infection undermines arguments in favor of mandates.

An unvaccinated person who submits to a regular testing regimen is arguably safer than a person vaccinated six or seven months ago, whose antibody protection has significantly waned.

And there is increasing evidence that those with natural immunity have more protection from serious illness than those who are vaccinated, especially those who were vaccinated early. This would explain why the European’s Union’s COVID-19 certification system equates recovery from infection to full vaccination.

The United plaintiffs are seeking a reasonable accommodation to the mandate that will allow them to continue working. Federal law demands it.

And the “science” as they say, increasingly does, too.