The lawsuit brought against the Steamship Authority’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate is headed to federal court.
The group of employees filed the 129-page lawsuit last week in Barnstable County Superior Court, alleging the SSA was infringing on their First Amendment rights, as they relate to religious freedom. The lawsuit outlines the group of 11 employees opposing the “one-size-fit-all” medical mandates and instead willing to use other preventive measures such as weekly testing and masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The SSA filed to remove the case from the superior court to the U.S. District Court. The case had been scheduled for a hearing on the injunction sought by the employees to block their termination, but that was preempted by the SSA’s legal maneuver. A superior court judge imposed an emergency restraining order last Friday.
“This court has federal jurisdiction over this case because the plaintiffs have alleged ‘a violation of the First Amendment, as applied to states and their political subdivisions under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution…,” the SSA’s motion to move the case to federal court states in part.
The case was on the SSA’s board of directors agenda Tuesday. SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll declined to comment on the case’s transition to federal court and said no vote was taken during the board’s executive session.
The plaintiffs, dubbed the Steamship Employees for Medical Freedom, are listed in the lawsuit as Captain Albert Brox, Kim Fernandes, James Bondarek, Andrea Sheedy, Paul Menton, Christopher Ovaska, Mark Anderson, Timothy Richardson, Steven Ennis, Sonia Simoneau, and Jeffrey D’Amario. The plaintiffs hold a wide variety of jobs such as captain, purser, parking lot cashier, terminal worker, oiler, ticket seller, and pilot.
The group is seeking $31,500 in lost wages and $150,000 in anticipated lost wages.
The suit gives the first window into how the SSA handled those who refused to get the vaccine. Employees were offered the option to resign or face a five-day suspension, then a 10-day suspension, and finally termination.
The lawsuit alleges that Brox, Fernandes, Bondarek, Sheedy, Menton, Ovaska, Anderson, Simoneau, Richardson, and Ennis are “Christians who adhere to the teachings of the Bible and are morally bound to follow the universal, consistent moral teaching of the Christian faith.”
It further states the plaintiffs are “devoted Christian people who sincerely believe the bible’s teachings and sincerely hold Christian beliefs that preclude them from taking the available COVID-19 vaccines.”
D’Amario, the other plaintiff named in the suit, is a practitioner of “nature worship,” which precludes him from taking the vaccine.
“D’Amario practices nature worship, which has taught him to be skeptical of conventional practices regarding diet and allopathic medical treatments. D’Amario sincerely believes his worship of nature, his practice of vegetarianism, and his use of natural, homeopathic medicines and remedies keep him healthy,” the suit alleges.
The suit claims Ennis took the vaccine after being denied an exemption request and then suffered an “adverse neurological reaction” and is being treated by his physician.
Each employee’s exemption and accommodation requests were attached to the lawsuit, with requests citing personal religious beliefs.
In his exemption request, Richardson stated he is a Catholic.
“As a faithful Catholic opposed to abortion, I cannot, according to the church tenets on conscience, use any product that takes its origin in abortion,” his request reads.
Pope Francis has supported COVID-19 vaccines and last month said getting vaccinated against COVID-19 was a “moral obligation,” according to NPR.
Sheedy wrote she fears the vaccine. “I’m afraid it will kill me. God is the only one that can decide that,” Sheedy wrote.
Ovaska wrote that taking the vaccine would be a sin. “All of the COVID vaccines were manufactured and/or tested with animal products and aborted fetal tissue, it would be a sin to take the vaccine,” Ovaska wrote.
According to multiple government health websites, COVID-19 vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells. Fetal cell lines, cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected in the 1970s and 1980s, do not contain any tissue from a fetus. Fetal cell lines are used in other medical technologies.
The COVID-19 vaccine mandate was announced in early January and in less than a week the ferry service said it had compliance from 93 percent of the 511 full and part-time employees who are required to get the vaccine. The SSA’s workforce blossoms to more than 700 employees during the busy summer season.
Employees were required to get their first dose of the vaccine by Jan. 6. The deadline for full vaccination is coming up on Wednesday, Feb. 16. The mandate came with a $500 incentive for SSA employees to get the shots paid out of the ferry line’s general fund. Even employees who had already gotten the vaccine were eligible for the payout with part-time employees getting a prorated amount.