Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reminded us that corporate executives invite legal trouble when they treat employees’ sincerely held religious convictions with callous indifference.
In Sambrano v. United Airlines, judges sided with United Airlines employees who found themselves on indefinite unpaid leave despite applying for and receiving religious exemptions from a companywide COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Previously a trial court had ruled in the company’s favor, but that decision was reversed by the Fifth Circuit, which then declined a request to rehear its decision. Judge James Ho wrote a concurrence explaining why.
This case is not about COVID-19 vaccines. It is about United executives forcing their political views about COVID-19 vaccines onto their employees. In 2021 and in response to President Biden’s executive order, United Airlines required all of its employees to get a COVID-19 vaccine or to request a religious or medical exemption. But employees who were granted an exemption were granted the “accommodation” of being put on unpaid leave indefinitely.
United could have allowed employees to continue working while following mask and distancing guidelines and submitting to regular testing. Virtually every other major airline— including Southwest, American, Frontier, and Delta—did so. But United opted to take a far less tolerant approach.
The company did not even try to justify its decision. There was no evidence that it would have reduced the spread of COVID. The risk of catching COVID on United planes is “infinitesimally low, with or without the vaccine,” and “some 99% of United’s employees were already vaccinated,” the Fifth Circuit remarked.
Instead, the evidence showed that, “United’s CEO deliberately set out to coerce employees with religious scruples against the vaccine into violating those beliefs.” Both the trial court and Fifth Circuit were, “disturbed by United’s seemingly calloused approach to its employees’ deeply personal concerns with injecting a foreign substance into their bodies.”
United demanded that its employees choose between their deepest religious convictions and feeding their family. So, these employees sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and asked the court for immediate relief. Even as the trial court denied immediate relief, it acknowledged that if the government, and not United, was inflicting that harm, then the injury would deserve immediate relief and be, in legal terminology, “irreparable.”
At the Fifth Circuit, Judge Ho did not mince words: “How much money would it take for you to sell out your faith? To ask the question is to answer it. It seems obvious that violations of conscience are classic irreparable injuries.” Courts readily recognize this in the First Amendment context, when the government is encroaching on fundamental freedoms. But since it was United that was infringing on religious freedom rather than the government, the district court let the airline off the hook. The Fifth Circuit quickly reversed because, as Judge Ho explained: “it seems obvious that the reason that First Amendment injuries are irreparable is not because [they are] inflicted by the government rather than business. It’s because the very nature of religious belief is spiritual...”
Now that the Fifth Circuit decided that plaintiffs can obtain immediate relief for this type of harm, the trial court must determine whether the employees are likely to win on their Title VII and ADA claims. There is reason for optimism: the trial court stated in its initial ruling that, “Plaintiffs’ arguments appear compelling and convincing at this stage.”
But while the final outcome of the case remains to be seen, c-suite leaders and others don’t need to wait around for a final decision to know that respecting employees who hold a diverse set of beliefs and convictions is the right thing to do.
And judging from the findings on the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index, corporations have a long way to go in that department. The 50 publicly traded Fortune 1000 companies evaluated scored an average of just 10 percent on the Workplace section, indicating a major fault line between c-suite executives and rank-and-file employees.
Judge Ho’s concurrence highlighted the same phenomenon:
Historically, corporations typically focus on increasing shareholder value—not on imposing certain cultural values on others. But that is rapidly changing.
I began by imagining a hypothetical employer who doesn’t care how productive an employee you might be—he insists that you abandon certain religious beliefs he finds offensive, whether it’s abortion, marriage, sexuality, gender, or something else.
But here’s the thing: What was once hypothetical is now rapidly becoming reality.
This case is a perfect example of why, from a legal perspective, businesses should resist calls for ideological conformity. As John Siverling, President and Director of Private Markets and Impact Advocacy for OneAscent, recently wrote, there’s also a distinct business risk associated with a lack of viewpoint diversity.
Forcing employees to toe the line—even when it conflicts with their deeply held beliefs—not only stifles free thinking and religious freedom in the workplace, but as United is fast discovering, can lead corporate leaders into unwanted legal minefields.
Other company leaders would be wise to learn the lesson from United and the Fifth Circuit before they find themselves facing similar consequences.