U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns has denied an injunction that would halt the Steamship Authority vaccination mandate for employees who claim they sought and were denied religious exemptions. Citing another judge’s conclusion, Stearn wrote “the Commonwealth (and, by extension the Authority) ‘is under no constitutional obligation to offer a religious exemption to its vaccine requirement.’”
Judge Stearns further wrote, “At the outset, the record suggests that the plaintiffs’ opposition to receiving the COVID-19 vaccine is based primarily on ‘philosophical, medical, or scientific beliefs, or personal fears or anxieties’ rather than bona fide religious practices.”
In his 18-page decision filed on Thursday, Stearns wrote that what is “undergirding” the plaintiff’s request for an injunction “is the scientifically unsupportable theory that the COVID-19 vaccines are, at worst, a hoax.”
Stearns took aim at the plaintiffs, describing their behavior as a “danger to the public,” particularly to those who travel to and from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
“It is a matter of utmost urgency that these dangerous and fallacious assertions be laid to rest,” Stearns wrote. “The CDC has determined — and no responsible world health organization or scientific body disagrees — that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against the virus and its variants, especially protecting against ‘severe illness, hospitalization, and death …’ The danger to the public is not the vaccine but persons who, like the plaintiffs, insist on behaviors that endanger all those with whom they have contact. Although perhaps wrongly attributed to the great Justice Holmes, there is Holmsian wisdom in the adage that ‘your liberty to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.’”
SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll declined comment on the judge’s decision. The plaintiff’s attorney, Patrick Daubert, also declined comment.
The suit was filed last month by 11 employees of the Steamship Authority who claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine mandate implemented by the ferry service violated their First Amendment rights to religious freedom. In the suit, one plaintiff said he practices “nature worship,” another alleged that the vaccine “takes its origin in abortion,” and another said she feared “it will kill me.”
The suit was initially filed in Barnstable Superior Court, but was moved to federal court by the SSA because the employees claimed their constitutional rights had been violated.
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 of employees seek $31,500 in lost wages and $150,000 in anticipated lost wages.
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 was 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.