A Suffolk Superior Court judge today issued an injunction that prohibits State Police from firing seven troopers for not getting Covid-19 shots at least until she further considers their claims they are being discriminated against for religious reasons.
In a ruling today, Judge Christine Roach said it would be unfair to fire the seven while the case is proceeding because it raises novel, at least for Massachusetts, issues about religious freedoms and the rights of the state and its police to combat a deadly pandemic - novel because the union said it both accepted the validity of vaccinations in fighting Covid-19 and did not dispute Gov. Baker's right to issue an order requiring vaccinations, making the main issue one of how to balance religious beliefs with a government agency's right to manage itself, especially in the face of a deadly pandemic.
At least initially, Roach ruled, the union representing the seven troopers had made a compelling case of possible discrimination while State Police had not made a similarly strong case that they could make no "reasonable accommodations" to shift the troopers into administrative jobs without harming the department's work.
No other reported case has fully balanced this discretion [to require troopers be ready to answer any call] against bona fide religious exercise and the bodily integrity potentially implicated by these facts. The strongly competing interest at issue here compel caution in all respects.
However, Roach continued she is not really buying the union's arguments that the department's efforts to fire the men is a violation of its collective-bargaining rights - or that the government's interest in fighting Covid-19 is somehow reduced just because we're currently in something of a lull in the spread of the disease.
The seven troopers are among 156 who originally sought religious exemptions from Gov. Baker's mandate that all state workers show proof of vaccination or risk being fired. In written decisions, the state said it accepted they had valid religious reasons for opposing the shots, but that there was no way they could be accommodated, because of the nature of State Police work since the only way to let them stay employed would be to put them into administrative jobs where they would be physically isolated from other employees and the public, but the nature of the department is to require the ability to send all troopers out on "emergent calls."
The seven have been on unpaid leave since November; Roach's ruling does not change their status, just prohibits the state, for now, from firing them completely.
Roach said that because the seven represent only a tiny percentage of all state troopers - some 1,800 - it would not prove a burden on the department to keep the seven around while the case wends through her court - and that State Police had failed to show that providing "reasonable accommodations" to them during the trial would harm police work.
Roach continued, though, that she did not accept the union's argument that the state attempt to fire the seven is a violation of the union's contract and not an acceptable "management prerogative" for how to run the department.
In favor of honoring this well-established core management prerogative is the enormity of the risks at stake to the safety of every citizen of the Commonwealth in the face of the pandemic and the role of this employer in contributing to, not detracting from, that safety. I am not persuaded on this record that the contract before me encompasses bargaining over such an order as the Governor's Order 595 [the vaccination mandate]. Nor am I persuaded that it would be in the public interest to allow each executive department of public employees independently to bargain, to grieve, and to arbitrate over how the Governor's (here unchallenged) Order 595 should be implemented in their department.