Dozens of Washington State Patrol troopers and other state and local government employees have sued Gov. Jay Inslee, contending his COVID-19 vaccine mandate oversteps his legal authority and violates their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Walla Walla County Superior Court, lists more than 90 individual plaintiffs. They include 53 State Patrol employees, a dozen Department of Corrections workers, plus firefighters, health care and ferry system workers.
Reacting to a spike in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations driven mainly by unvaccinated people, Inslee last month ordered all state employees and contractors, K-12 education staffers and health care workers to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.
Employees are allowed to seek medical or religious exemptions, but patrol employees and others have been told they could still face firing or reassignment even if their exemption applications are approved.
The lawsuit cites emails suggesting Inslee’s office crafted the religious exemption to be “as narrow as possible” and contends his order will result “in certain political and religious classes being purged from civil service,” according to the 25-page complaint filed by Seattle attorney Nathan Arnold.
It also argues that Inslee’s open-ended emergency declaration, first issued on Feb. 29, 2020, is an unreasonable use of powers intended to be temporary. “By axiom, an event lasting over 20 months is not emergent,” the lawsuit states.
Inslee’s mandate is stricter than those announced by many other states and the federal government, which allow weekly coronavirus testing for workers who refuse vaccines.
Inslee’s office has defended his vaccination mandate, supported by public health officials, who stress the vaccines are key to ending the pandemic that has killed more than 650,000 people in the United States, and 6,918 in Washington.
“These requirements are in full compliance with the law. We look forward to responding in court,” said Mike Faulk, an Inslee spokesperson, in an email.
The three vaccines authorized in the United States — Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — have been tested and found to be safe and effective, according to public health authorities. Since February, more than 90% of hospitalizations and deaths in Washington occurred among people who had not been fully vaccinated, state health officials have said.
As of Wednesday, 65.4% of state residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated and 72.1% of residents in that age category have gotten at least one shot, according to state health officials.
While not yet releasing the percentage of state workers who are vaccinated or are seeking exemptions, the governor’s office has denied that a large swath of public employees will risk their jobs to avoid safe and potentially lifesaving vaccines.
Still, some law enforcement unions have predicted further staffing crises if the mandate is enforced. And some state government employees have publicly pledged to retire or quit rather than get vaccinated.
The state patrol has received 373 religious exemption requests — the bulk coming from commissioned officers, said agency spokesperson Chris Loftis in an email. The patrol employs about 2,300 people, with roughly half commissioned officers and half civil service employees.
Of those requests, 284 have been approved, but Loftis said no practical accommodations have been found for any of them so far, because patrol work necessarily involves contact with the public. He said employees assigned to offices or cubicles also cannot be accommodated under the state’s standards.
“If no accommodation can be made due to job classification or an offered accommodation or reassignment is not accepted by the employee, separation from employment may occur,” Loftis said.
An additional 80 requests remain under consideration, and nine rescinded their requests, Loftis said. The agency also has approved 22 medical exemptions.
The lead plaintiffs in the new lawsuit are Seattle firefighter William Cleary, who lists his Catholic faith in the complaint, and his wife, Sherra Cleary, a health care worker who has previously declined to receive flu shots. Firefighters are part of Inslee’s order as health care providers.
“Ms. Cleary is also pregnant but will not be given an exemption from the Governor’s Mandate even for two months remaining in her pregnancy,” the lawsuit states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 12 and older, including pregnant women, pointing to data showing no increased risk of miscarriage because of the vaccines.
The Catholic Church also has shown support for COVID-19 vaccination. Pope Francis last month called the inoculations “an act of love” and Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne has told parishioners there is no religious ground for them to refuse the vaccines or seek an exemption.
Reached by phone, William Cleary said he was willing to discuss his decision to sue, but first needed to clear interview requests with Arnold, the attorney on the lawsuit. Arnold did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
The state recently reached an agreement with its largest union, the Washington Federation of State Employees, over the vaccine mandate’s implementation.
The agreement, ratified by the union membership over the weekend, gives some wiggle room on the governor’s Oct. 18 vaccination deadline for workers seeking religious or medical exemptions.
For example, workers whose requests are denied can use up to 45 days of paid or unpaid leave to get fully vaccinated. That 45-day window also applies to workers whose exemptions are approved but work cannot be found for them where they interact with fewer people.
Faulk said the state also has reached tentative agreements with a coalition of unions representing Washington State Ferry employees, a union representing employees of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and with SEIU 1199, which represents nurses and other health care workers.
Seattle Times News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes material from The Seattle Times archives.