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Home/Rod Dreher/David Vs. Goliath Vaccine Showdown

David Vs. Goliath Vaccine Showdown

Hi everyone, I’m traveling to Washington today for the TAC Gala tonight, so won’t have the chance to be properly attentive to this blog. I was in Tulsa last night giving a talk to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs at its annual gala. I talked about Live Not By Lies and soft totalitarianism. I stayed for a while afterwards talking to folks. People had their own stories. One man told me that he has friends who grew up in the Soviet bloc, and they keep saying the same thing: that a form of totalitarianism is taking shape in America. Another man told me he grew up in Romania as the child of missionaries, and he can recognize things here that are uncomfortably similar to what Romanians went through. Some people told me about really outrageous things they’re having to deal with on the job because of employer vaccine mandates. One woman said that her doctor advised her in particular against getting the vaccine — I assume it was because of a pre-existing condition — and wrote a letter to that effect. It didn’t matter to her employer, who fired her.

I told a story from the stage about a case I learned about just this week. Note well: this is a blog, not a newspaper. I have not had the opportunity to look into this beyond phone calls and texts with a couple of people involved on the same side of the issue. I will not have a chance to get to it till next week because of travel and other things, but I want to get it into the public arena, because if these people have a case, they need help, and they need help now. As you know, I am vaccinated and favor vaccinations, but I also favor robust protection for those who have conscience or other serious concerns, and who don’t want the vaccine.

This doesn’t involve just any employer. This involves the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the world’s top scientific research facilities. I’ve been in touch with Jordan Lefebvre, one of a number of employees of the University of Tennessee — Battelle, who are working at ORNL. They face eventual termination if they don’t get the vaccine by October 15 — even if they have exemptions! Lefebvre and his co-workers with exemptions — up to 140 of them — believe they are the victims of discrimination and an unreasonable accommodation: unpaid leave.

Jordan Lefebvre has been taking notes and has recordings from all his interactions. He sent these notes to me. He and the other resisters are facing the loss of their jobs, and want to challenge their employer in court. For that, you need money to hire a lawyer. Read on:

On Sept. 2, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), managed by UT-Battelle LLC, mandated COVID-19 vaccination.

On Sept. 13, ORNL released a “VACCINE REQUIREMENT” fact sheet, which outlines the “Accommodation request process.” The deadline to submit an accommodation was Sept. 15. The deadline for vaccination or approved accommodation was Oct 15. The fact sheet stated that when an accommodation is approved, “Employee registers to test at least weekly. Other preferred accommodations generally include social distancing and wearing face coverings.”

On Sept. 13, I submitted the ORNL-1200 form “Request Form for Religious Accommodation to COVID-19 Vaccination.” After submitting the ORNL-1200 form along with an attached letter on my sincerely held religious beliefs, the “HR Decision” showed “Pending.”

On Sept. 16, at approximately 4 p.m., I checked the C-19 Accommodations system and the “HR Decision” on my accommodation stated “Declined.” I emailed the HR business partner at 4:07 p.m., asking “Is ‘HR declined’ the ORNL decision on my exemption?” Within the hour, the column containing the HR decision was removed from the system. HR never acknowledged my email.

On Sept. 20, HR scheduled an interview for me on Sept. 22 at 12:30 p.m. They sent me a “fact sheet” titled “How fetal cell lines are used for vaccines and other products.”

On Sept. 21, I was interviewed in an office of 172 square feet by a 4-person panel representing ORNL legal counsel, medical, and HR. My personal office is 179 square feet and has a max occupancy notice of two people posted on the door. I was asked the following questions.

1. Briefly describe your objections to each of the COVID-19 vaccines, particularly the Pfizer and Moderna, which are not developed using fetal cell lines. I explained them.

2. Have you been a practicing Catholic your whole life? I said yes.

3. Aside from your religion, do you have any other feelings toward the COVID-19 vaccines? I said aside from the sanctity of human life, no.

4. What is your opinion on religious leaders’ beliefs regarding these vaccinations? I said that they have judged it permissible to use Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

5. It seems your beliefs are more strongly held than your religious leaders (Pope, etc.), or am I wrong with that? I stated that the church has “judged it permissible to accept under protest, demanding morally acceptable vaccines, or to object and not be vaccinated.” It is based on one’s formed conscience.

6. Do you understand that the cell lines used in these vaccines are frequently used in other medications? Many over-the-counter medicines? I said I was not aware and that I would evaluate that for myself.

7. Have you used the consumer products that contain the cell lines? I said if the prior claim was true, then yes.

8. Are you willing to sign a certification statement indicating you have not, or do not, or will not consume these? I said no.

9. Do you know that we use these stem cells in our research at the lab? I said no and that I would have to research that.

10. Do you have any religious concerns about working for a company that uses these cell lines? I said I would have to research if the lab does work with abortion-derived fetal stem cells.

11. Can you explain how you justify working at ORNL (and its involvement in stem cells) doesn’t offend you, but taking the vaccine does? I stated that knowing and partaking is different from unknowingly partaking. I needed to research their claims.

12. Is there anything else you’d like to let us know as we evaluate your request? I raised my concern about the process and the surprise that I had an interview, given I had seen that I was already declined in the system. They assured me it was a glitch.

13. We have a certification form for each employee to look over and sign, and we can plan on sharing a copy with you. I refused to sign the form as it requested me to check all that apply. That I “have not,” “do not,” “will not” take any of the over-the-counter medication reported to be tested with abortion-derived fetal stem cell lines.

14. Do you have other thoughts on that portion (I have not, do not, and will not) of the form? You are allowed to write in your own thoughts and initial. I left the room with the form.

Sept. 22, at approximately 7:30 a.m., HR director Jody Zahn cancelled all interviews. At 11:16 a.m., the document “Benefits Related to Unpaid Leaves Over 90 Days,” was updated and the revision history was removed to not allow highlighting of changes. At 2:07 p.m., HR director Jody Zahn emailed herself, blind copying individuals with the subject “Exemption Request Decision.” It read as follows:

Good Afternoon,

You have submitted a request for an accommodation to the UT-Battelle COVID-19 vaccination requirement based on a sincerely held religious belief.

UT-Battelle received approximately 150 requests for religious accommodations. They were individually reviewed by a panel of representatives from Human Resources, Health Services and Legal. In addition, the panel conducted personal interviews with 24 staff members in order to better understand their religious beliefs and how those beliefs prevent them from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. This staff engagement provided a better understanding of the basis for these requests. During each of the two days of interviews, an employee on the interview list tested positive for COVID-19. One employee completed their interaction with the panel before receiving their test results, potentially exposing panel members to the virus. Because (1) the basis for each employee’s request is personal and subjective, and (2) the personal interviews introduce a health and safety risk to the panel members, we have elected to discontinue the interview process and to focus our evaluation on the personal statements that were submitted with the accommodation requests.

UT-Battelle has reviewed the information you submitted and your request for a religious exemption has been approved.

UT-Battelle has evaluated the potential accommodations that we can offer, including those most requested by staff members — regular COVID-19 testing and remote work — and for the following reasons, UT-Battelle cannot provide those requested accommodations. Given the volume of approved exemption requests, the high transmission and low vaccination rates in our local community, the threat to the health and safety of our employees due to the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant, and the ongoing costs associated with a long-term testing program for unvaccinated staff members (and staff who may require testing through contact tracing from unvaccinated staff members who become positive for the virus), UT-Battelle has determined that regular testing of staff with religious exemptions would cause undue hardship to UT-Battelle.

In addition, as we have communicated throughout the return to normal on-site operations, ORNL is entrusted with important national missions and the essential nature of your job duties requires that you work on-site at the Lab. In that regard, we have already begun the process of returning staff members to campus, and we remain committed to bringing all staff members back to campus as soon as possible in order to reacclimate to working in-person. For this reason, UT-Battelle has determined that extended remote work would cause undue hardship to UT-Battelle as it would eliminate the essential job function of working on-site and cause disruptions to the Lab’s operations.

In evaluating your request, UT-Battelle has concluded that the only reasonable accommodation that we can provide to you without presenting an undue hardship is to allow you to remain a UT-Battelle employee, but without access to campus, by providing you with an unpaid leave of absence. You may elect to designate vacation time use prior to beginning your unpaid leave, but if you do not do so, your unpaid leave of absence will begin on Oct. 16 if you choose to remain unvaccinated.

Your leave will continue until community conditions improve and you can be accommodated on campus without undue hardship on the Lab or increased risk to staff members or Lab operations. Our intent is to reevaluate this accommodation in 60 days.
Following October 15, you will have these two options:

● Use vacation starting the first workday following October 15, and continuously until exhausted
Once exhausted, an unpaid personal leave of absence will begin
● Begin an unpaid personal leave of absence immediately and retain vacation
Vacation will not be available for use during the unpaid personal leave of absence if not
immediately initiated

Regarding benefits:

● While on vacation, benefits continue as normal
● Once an unpaid personal leave of absence begins, some, but not all, benefits will continue for a limited period of time
● See here for full detail on impact to benefits while on an unpaid personal leave of absence
● See more details in the SBMS exhibit “Benefits Related to Leaves of Absence”

If you have questions, please consult your HR Business Partner.
Jody Zahn
HR Director

Jody Zahn
Director, Human Resources
Oak Ridge National Laboratory
PO Box 2008 MS 6219, Oak Ridge, TN 37831
Office: [deleted by RD]
Fax: [deleted by RD]
Email: [deleted by RD]

On Sept. 22, at 9:08 p.m., the “Benefits Related to Unpaid Leaves Over 90 Days” was updated, changing Medical and Dental benefits for Personal Leave from “Normal rate for two months…” to “Normal rate for up to two months…”

On Sept. 23, my division director and I discussed the situation. I raised my concerns about the process. He was interested in what I was going to do. I emphasized that I was going to work for as long as I could in fulfillment of my responsibilities. I have worked mostly from home since March 2020. Later that day, a project principal investigator on a significant project communicated to me that the Associate Lab Director was requesting “continuity planning” for anyone holding a significant role. We iterated on one of my responsibilities and selected four other individuals who could partially fulfill my responsibilities.

On Sept. 30, at 1:24 p.m., I wrote HR director Jody Zahn formally requesting the C-19 Accommodations system and information there be preserved and that the system be updated to reflect the HR decision that was sent to herself.

On Oct. 1, at 9 p.m., HR director Jody Zahn began updating individual HR decisions in the C-19 Accommodations system.

On Oct. 5, HR business partners began communicating that those with approved religious exemptions going on vacation prior to unpaid leave are due to turn in their badges and equipment on Oct. 15.

To date, a group of us has accounted for ~70 of the religious exemption personnel. We are desperately trying to reach the other ~70 individuals.

Many will go on unpaid leave immediately. We are urgently trying to file a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to pause ORNL from placing us on leave after Oct. 15. The TRO will give us 14 days to file a Preliminary Injunction against ORNL/UT-Battelle.

We must file the TRO by Oct. 12 to have a judge review in time to halt ORNL.

It will take 4 to 5 days for lawyers to pull together the information necessary to file. We have reached out to the lawyers at Schaerr Jaffe LLP, Mark Palmetto and Brian Field, and they are willing to represent us. They need a $50,000 retainer to begin the process. They estimated costs of around $200,000 but stated that estimates are rough.

To quote Knoxville’s Mayor Jacobs “in America, it is always about freedom.” Please support this fight for freedom and donate to support our litigation against UT-Battelle’s discrimination.

https://www.givesendgo.com/utbdiscriminates

Again, I do not have ORNL’s side of the story, so caveat lector. If the situation is as Jordan Lefebvre describes, then it seems to me to be unjust anti-religious discrimination. The fact that this is happening at a major US Government research post, one with a $2.4 billion annual budget, raises the stakes significantly. If what Lefebvre reports bothers you, then I encourage you to go to that GiveSendGo account and donate to legal fund for these employees and their David vs. Goliath challenge.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I just want to personally thank you for including the plight of my colleagues at Oak Ridge National Laboratory against religious discrimination in your blog on Oct. 7. I have worked there since [date] and am vaccinated myself, but it has been demoralizing to see how quickly the lab management has turned on many of my friends and coworkers. I have tried to protest the so-called “accommodation” of unpaid leave myself, and have essentially been told to shut up by my management. It’s made so much worse considering how many people at Oak Ridge still work from home—and yet the option of working from home is suddenly off-the-table as an accommodation for religious exemptions.

Anyway, I have felt so sad and helpless watching a job that has been a great blessing to me turn sour in a matter of weeks. Thank you for getting the word out.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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