Robert Lefebvre and Jordan Lefebvre will be fighting another type of battle — a lawsuit against UT-Battelle (ORNL), their employer for placing unvaccinated employees on unpaid leave because they were religious or medically exempt.
The brothers detailed in a two-hour video call how pandemic politics has infiltrated ORNL. This campus covers 30,000 acres and houses over 300 buildings. It also contains a number of secret national security projects. The lab is managed by UT-Battelle, which contracts 100% of its business with U.S. Department of Energy, worth $2.4 billion. This includes research and development in nuclear energy, modeling systems, stockpile test, and other activities that require special clearances.
ORNL’s 5,700 plus employees were involved in the pandemic. Many of them worked remotely, creating “deliverables” for their projects and adhering to testing, masking and social distancing. Many hundred people who were not vaccinated have been fired or are waiting anxiously for a federal appeals court to decide whether they will be fired. ORNL has lost, or is likely to lose, truck drivers and others who “closely follow the codes”. All this while America’s enemies Russia and China increase their arsenals.
Jordan stated that Jordan could talk about the negative impact on morale, near-term milestones and the objectives of many, many different projects. All of that fallout…will reverberate in the months ahead. Jordan also noted that Jordan worked as much as 60 hours per week prior to the announcement of a vaccine mandate. It is already being felt at the national laboratories right now, as we were already overwhelmed by the amount of work we had to do.
Robert stated that ORNL isn’t the only lab affected by the “fallout” of coronavirus vaccine mandates. He also noted that UT-Battelle oversees many other labs and likely facilitated similar policies elsewhere.
“There are leaders in their field who are being marginalized. Who is picking up the pieces? Who will continue that mission? When asked about the implications for national security, he stated that it was difficult to have backups for those who are so skilled. “There’s a lot loss of continuity in efforts — Your mission scope– and you can clearly imagine the mission scope across national lab and security complex, and how it could fall out.”
Although District Court Judge Charles Atchley Jr. of the Eastern District of Tennessee denied the motion of an ORNL employee for a preliminary order while litigation continued in October, Atchley stated that UT-Battelle could be called “ill-advised” and “underthought.”
“Much can and should be said about how UT-Battelle managed their accommodation processes. It is hard to see UT-Battelle’s treatment of employees as thoughtful and prudent when a company prides itself in its national security mission and its role in protecting the interests the United States,” the judge stated in his decision.
Their careers were described by the Catholic brothers as having a “meteoric path” — they both have degrees from computer science and have been working together at ORNL since 2009. Jordan resigned in December 2021, but the group leaders eventually became responsible for multi-million-dollar projects. They shared that their faith influences how they see the world, and their passion for the prolife movement.
“Our mother put us on the prayer line, holding our prayer banners, prolife banners and praying at 6 a.m. to the abortion clinics. We were also saying our rosaries. We’ve been always very, very conscious of this. Jordan stated that the sanctity and value of human life is a deep part of our DNA.
The pair decided to forgo vaccination after learning that coronavirus vaccines were made using fetal cells lines during lab testing, development or both.
Thomas Zacharia, Director of ORNL, sent an email to staff on September 16th 2021. He stated that accommodations like testing and face coverings, which were used throughout the pandemic period, might not be adequate protection. Court documents also allege that Zacharia was the author.
The complaint states that he threatened to put ORNL on notice before interviewing religiously-motivated employees began, and that staff members granted religious exemptions should be ready for unpaid leave beginning October 15th, “potentially up until the end the pandemic.”
Jordan claimed that they both submitted their religious exemptions applications quickly. Jordan said that he checked ORNL’s online portal on September 17 and noticed that his exemption application had changed from “pending” into “declined”. He said, “There was no communication.” “There was no communication,” he said.
Jordan claimed that he had emailed Human Resources regarding the portal change but did not receive a reply. The portal removed the decision column within an hour.
Jordan was asked by higher-ups to take part in an interview about his religious beliefs on Monday. Jordan entered a room no larger than 12×12 with four people on September 21. Jordan was not allowed to have more than two people in his office according to ORNL’s coronavirus policies. Jordan claimed that his office was slightly larger than the interview area, which meant that management was violating its own rules in order to interview unvaccinated employees.
Jordan stated, “They subsequently began to interrogate” Jordan.
Jordan said that the panel asked him to explain his objections to vaccines, his deep faith, his opinion on religious leaders’ beliefs regarding vaccines, and if he had ever taken over-the-counter medications. Many of these have been tested with fetal cells.
Jordan claimed that he had helped Robert prepare for his interview. However, the interview was cancelled a few hours prior to its scheduled date. Later, the brothers discovered that all interviews were canceled. An email was sent to exemption holders to inform them that they would be taking unpaid leave.
The brothers claim that ORNL cancelled the in-person interviews due to a few people who were interviewed in the small room selected by management and not in accordance with pandemic protocol. Management did not allow exemption interviews to be moved online despite the fact that many of its employees worked remotely.
Jordan stated, “They said that we — the unvaccinated – were putting at risk the vaccinated panel because both days individuals tested positive.”
The brothers soon noticed that their benefits had been rewritten many times. That is when they realized that management was not “bluffing”. On September 25, Zacharia sent a lab leader email titled “Today’s Meeting” that included a message from Stan Wullschleger, an Associate Lab Director. He stated that UT-Battelle employees make decisions that affect themselves and their families based on their “values and beliefs and worldviews” and that those decisions “have consequences and I’m both comfortable that we have communicated them to everyone,” according court documents.
Jordan stated that Rob and I began to hunt down people — it was a serious campaign to reach out to everyone who had applied for an exemption. Jordan added that they eventually found 130 employees who were granted religious exemptions. Robert stated, “We had the choice to either walk away or stand up and fight.”
After finding representation at Schaerr Jaffe in D.C., the pair spent several weeks preparing for their lawsuit. Schaerr Jaffe is a powerful D.C. law office that also represents United Airlines employees in a high-profile case regarding vaccine mandates. Robert stated, specifically referring to an employee who is a caregiver for a loved one with cancer and needs treatment that costs tens of thousand of dollars. Jordan stated that he was six-foot two and had lost 145 pounds because of stress. Robert said, “Yesh, 10 percent of me body mass has been lost.”
Atchley granted a Temporary Restraining Order on October 15, so that Atchley could present more evidence at a later hearing. ORNL called back the employees it had started to put on unpaid leave during those few weeks. Many of these employees had already received their security clearances, which can sometimes take several months to obtain.
The judge denied the employees a preliminary order, stating that unpaid leave was not irreparable injury. However, Atchley did note that “plaintiffs’ arguments appear convincing–particularly concerning their Title VII failure to accommodate claim,” and slammed UT-Battelle for reflecting a “shocking indifference to some of its employees.” The case is apparently on hold while a similar case is pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Tennessee.
Despite the current status of the lawsuit, UT Battelle has had its mandate revoked — at least temporarily — due to other factors. Tennessee has a law that states companies can’t mandate vaccines. There is an exception for companies that receive federal funds like UT-Battelle. However, a preliminary injunction was issued on November 30 for Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Lefebvre’s report that UT-Battelle complied with state law after the preliminary injunction was issued and advised people that they could return to work in December.
Robert cautioned that while the move may appear to be a victory for unvaccinated people, it may not last long.
He said that some of those who were called back were told it was temporary and that it could be for X number weeks or Y number months but don’t expect it will be permanent.
Jordan decided to leave ORNL. Robert, however, is still employed by the company. Robert stated that the most disappointing thing about ORNL was seeing how vaccine-rejecting scientists, engineers and scientists are being painted. “It is not possible for engineers or scientists to have religious convictions. They don’t see the connection. Robert stated that if someone is ostracized for this reason, they aren’t good scientists or they’re not a scientist.
This is what I see on social media. They don’t necessarily understand that we’re scientists. We are the ones that work and lead the mission space at our national laboratories and security complexes. It all comes down to the logic behind it, which history will hopefully reveal. We know that they took down our website and cyber access because of our religious beliefs, even though we were working remotely throughout the pandemic.
Jordan agreed and said that safety is a top priority for scientists working with nuclear energy. The pandemic is no exception.
Safety is a top priority for scientists and staff at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Safety is our first priority. It’s the most important thing. He concluded that they treated us as COVID.