Fedweek

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The COVID vaccine mandate for federal employees has withstood its first legal challenge, although the ruling involved only an initial matter, a request for an injunction to temporarily block that mandate while the underlying legal issues were considered.

A judge in federal district court in the District of Columbia said that because the plaintiffs—a mix of federal and uniformed military personnel who are under a similar mandate—have pending requests for exceptions for religious reasons, under the policy none of them face imminent negative consequences for not being vaccinated.

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The court found the plaintiffs failed to show the “certainty of irreparable harm” needed for an injunction while the requests are being considered, saying it can’t be assumed that they will be denied. The request of one of them in fact already has been granted, the decision noted.

Those requests “may remain pending for weeks or months, during which time those employees will retain their temporary-exempted status and avoid the prospect of required vaccination. And even if a religious exemption request was ultimately denied, the applicant would still receive a two-week buffer period before they would be required to receive their initial inoculation,” the court said.

It added that even if they “did ultimately face employment discipline, these plaintiffs provide no arguments as to why such adverse action could not be adequately remedied through more traditional relief, such as back-pay or reinstatement.”

The decision however touched on a broader issue considered key to the basic legal dispute over the mandate, involving the balance of individual rights and the public interest in what it called “the efficient administration of the federal government and public health more broadly.”

It said that blocking the mandate “could risk sickening swathes of the civil service, prolonging remote work, impeding public access to government benefits and records, and slowing governmental programs.”

“Civilian employees who continue to telework do not live in a vacuum. Enjoining the mandatory vaccination requirements of Executive Order 14043 risks not only the health of federal agency employees, but also the health of those around them. And courts have consistently held over the past two years that the public interest in stemming the spread of COVID-19 is weighty,” it said.

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