By Zachary Stieber
Police officials in Massachusetts wrongly suspended eight state troopers over a refusal to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, an arbitrator ruled on Aug. 4.
The troops sought exemptions from the mandate because of their religious beliefs but officials rejected the requests, leading to the suspensions.
The Department of the State Police violated the troopers’ rights when their exemption requests were denied, the arbitrator ruled, according to the State Police Association of Massachusetts, a union, and lawyer Leah Marie Barrault.
The arbitrator found that the troopers “hold a sincere religious belief that conflicted with the vaccine and that they should have been afforded the opportunity to have their individual accommodation requests reviewed and not summarily discarded,” Ms. Barrault, who represented the troopers, said in a statement.
The department did not return a request for comment. In a statement to local outlets, a spokesperson said, “We are reviewing today’s ruling to determine the administrative and legal steps required for its implementation.”
The union said that the arbitrator ordered officials to contact the troopers to offer them reinstatement as well as full back pay for the period of suspension.
Seven of the troopers have been suspended since 2021. The eighth has already returned to duty after a period of suspension.
“Earlier today, I had the distinct honor and privilege of informing seven of our Troopers, who have been suspended without pay due to Executive Order 595, that they would be returning to work,” Patrick McNamara, president of the police association, said in a statement.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, issued the order, which required all executive branch workers to prove they’d been vaccinated by October 2021.
Mr. Baker said that vaccination was “the most effective tool” for combating COVID-19 and that “widespread vaccination is the only means the Commonwealth has over the long-term to ensure protection from COVID-19 in all its variations and to end the many negative consequences COVID-19 produces in our daily lives.” The order did not include citations for the claims.
Workers who did not comply with the mandate were told they would face punishment, including termination. But the order said that agencies needed to allow exemptions to workers “unable to receive COVID-19 vaccination due to medical disability” and workers “unwilling to receive COVID-19 vaccination due to a sincerely held religious belief.”
Gov. Maura Healey, a Democrat who succeeded Mr. Baker, rescinded the order in May. She said that the order “has successfully reduced and mitigated countless infections, hospitalizations, and deaths resulting from COVID-19” but did not provide any citations.
The state police separately fired 13 troopers over the mandate. The new decision does not involve them.
“Although today is a day to rejoice and celebrate a win for organized labor, our fight is not finished. Thirteen of our members remain out of work, unfairly terminated by the Baker Administration, and left with the scars of a spiteful and unfounded designation of being dishonorably discharged,” Mr. McNamara said. “To those who doubted our commitment and criticized our fight, today reaffirms what I have said since day one; the State Police Association Massachusetts will always defend our members’ rights.”
In another recently decided case, a judge ruled that the publicly-funded University of Virginia wrongly fired a cytotechnologist after denying her request for a religious exemption. The school wrongly applied a test aimed at determining the sincerity of belief, the judge said, which “is violative of the separation of church and state doctrine enshrined in both the Virginia and federal constitutions.”
Another judge ruled in a Massachusetts case, involving Beth Israel Lahey Health, that imposition of a mandate did not constitute assault, denying most claims from a set of former workers who were fired for refusing to get vaccinated. The judge did allow the case to move forward on the claim that the health instruction was motivated by “retaliatory animus” when firing the workers.