One hundred and fifty scientists and employees within one of the most critical government-funded energy research labs in the country are on indefinite unpaid leave after they were denied a religious exemption request for the COVID-19 vaccine.

They work at the historic Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL): the largest science and energy lab in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) network of 17 National Laboratories, and whose management is contracted out to private companies. Mainly, the scientists object to how the available COVID-19 vaccines were either developed and tested — or in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, produced — using abortion-derived fetal cell lines.

ORNL is operated by UT-Battelle, a not-for-profit limited liability company that has government contracts with 9 of the 17 National Laboratories. ORNL began in 1943 as “X-10,” part of the Manhattan Project: a secret World War II-era project to develop a nuclear bomb and counter Germany’s progress with nuclear fission.

The Daily Wire spoke with two of the UT-Battelle scientists refusing the COVID-19 vaccine because of their religious convictions — twin brothers Jordan and Rob Lefebvre. Neither of them can do their job because they’re not vaccinated against COVID-19.

While UT-Battelle approved the brothers’ religious exemption, it refused to offer accommodations like frequent testing or remote work, saying it would pose an undue hardship on the company. The organization also cited the criticality of conducting on-site work as part of ORNL’s national missions.

UT-Battelle presented the future possibility of improved community conditions or their ability to accommodate without bearing undue hardships as a sort of unguaranteed silver lining.

It wasn’t just UT-Battelle’s conclusion on the matter that struck Jordan, Rob, and their colleagues — it was the process they faced. In addition to filing a request for exemption and a letter of explanation from religious leadership, employees were required to undergo interviews arbitrating those beliefs and sign a certification statement that they haven’t, wouldn’t, and don’t presently use certain medications and pharmaceutical products that use fetal cell lines for testing. Neither signed the statement.

A sample of the interview questions shared with The Daily Wire debated the validity and sincerity of the employees’ religious beliefs. They challenged the individual as to whether they’d been practicing their religion their whole life, pried to see if the individual had other non-religious thoughts or beliefs about the vaccine, and contrasted the individual’s religious beliefs to those of their leaders. Additionally, the company interrogated the individual about their past or current use of consumer and medical products that had, at some point, been tested using fetal cell lines. 

“A lot of it was kind of entrapment questions — why are you objecting to the vaccine when you don’t object to these other things?” observed Jordan.

Rob added that they aren’t opposed to vaccines — just the ones that weigh on their religious conscience. In this case, they oppose the COVID-19 vaccine due to the critical role that fetal cell lines played during testing or development.

“We’ve never challenged the mandate. It’s about reasonable accommodations. We’re not against vaccinations [just] these vaccines specifically — many of us have religious objections,” explained Rob.

Jordan added that the treatment he and his fellow employees have endured has effectively stripped them of their humanity. He asserted that their civil liberties were at stake. 

“We’re being treated as if we are COVID itself. We have no rights at our place of work. My stewardship of millions and millions of dollars of taxpayer money to effectively manage national security missions — that doesn’t matter anymore,” remarked Jordan. 

Some of UT-Battelle’s employees who were denied religious accommodations ended up suing, alleging that the company had violated Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In that case, Jeffrey Bilyeu, et al., v. UT-Battelle, LLC, those employees were joined by those denied medical accommodations, who alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). U.S. District Judge Charles Atchley initially awarded a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in mid-October, but couldn’t award a preliminary injunction at a subsequent hearing at the end of last month.

Although the judge said he sympathized with the employees’ plight, he didn’t find that the damages from unpaid leave met the standard of irreparable harm.

Much can be said about the way UT-Battelle handled their accommodation processes. For a company that prides itself on the importance of its national security mission and the role it plays in protecting the interests of the United States, it is difficult to view the treatment of employees as thoughtful or prudent. It is difficult to imagine that other accommodations aside from unpaid leave were not available for at least some individuals. But given the absence of irreparable harm, the Court need not examine whether such accommodations were reasonable. Neither is it the Court’s role to determine whether the company erred in issuing a one-size-fits-all accommodation for a group of employees with differing job duties and various time spent on campus. Regardless of the result of such findings, it is hard to fathom that conducting more individualized assessments was untenable for an entity with the resources of UT-Battelle. In this regard, Defendant’s decisions reflect a shocking indifference to some of its employees. These employees deserve better, as does everyone associated with UT-Battelle. 

Ultimately, the law requires a finding of irreparable harm for an injunction, and this harm must be concrete and imminent – not speculative or uncertain. Plaintiffs’ testimony was moving, and the Court remains sympathetic to their situation. However, the harms identified by Plaintiffs are not yet ‘irreparable.’

Beyond continued efforts of legal action and raising awareness, the next step for the Lefebrves and their colleagues will be finishing their discrimination charge filings with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). According to the Lefebvres, the EEOC has identified UT-Battelle’s lack of reasonable religious accommodations as a systemic complaint and has agreed to review their concerns as a group. They’re anticipating advances in the EEOC’s review process in these upcoming weeks.

Not all vaccine mandates have held up to scrutiny as of late. In the wake of a recent federal court ruling against the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for companies with over 100 employees, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was forced to suspend the mandate pending a final court ruling.

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