A group of workers at the Steamship Authority who have been challenging the ferry line’s Covid vaccine policy won a partial victory in federal appeals court earlier this month.

The First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Oct. 6 that the U.S. District Court in Boston did not properly consider the 11 employees’ request for an injunction in 2022, after the Steamship Authority implemented a vaccine mandate for most workers.

The employees, some of whom eventually did get vaccinated, claimed the policy denied their First Amendment rights on religious grounds. In the district court filing, the employees asked for a preliminary injunction, and argued that another boat captain did receive an exemption from the policy for medical reasons.

The employees claimed the Steamship Authority “enforc[ed] the mandate unequally, treating secular (medical) exemption requests more favorably than religious exemption requests.”

District court judge Richard G. Stearns denied the request for a preliminary injunction, which could have given them relief from the vaccine mandate.

But a panel of judges with the appeals court ruled that the district court had not taken into account the medical exemption provided to a captain, nor did it “engage with the question of the level of scrutiny to which the [Covid vaccine policy] should be subjected.”

“[T]he record shows that the Policy’s medical exemption has been administered to treat comparably situated persons differently based on whether their request for an exemption is religious or medical in nature,” the court wrote.

To grant a preliminary injunction, which in this case would likely provide the employees temporary relief from the policy, a court needs to find that the employees’ overall argument needs to meet a “likelihood of success.”

The appeals court agreed with the employees that the district court did not properly support its reasons and vacated the lower court’s ruling on the free speech injunction request.

The district court will now have to reopen the case and consider appeals court’s decisions on other vaccine-related cases.

“We are pleased with the First Circuit’s remand, which vacates the District Court’s denial of injunctive relief as to my clients’ free exercise claim under the First Amendment,” the employees’ attorney Patrick Daubert said in a statement. “We are still seeking reinstatement for those employees who were terminated for standing by their religious convictions in declining COVID vaccines.”

The employees’ other challenges did not hold up as well. The lower court’s decisions on several other parts of the lawsuit were sustained by the appeals court, including that the Steamship Authority has “plausible justification” to adopt the policy.

Ferry line spokesperson Sean Driscoll declined to comment on the remand, citing the ongoing litigation.

The district court as of Monday had not scheduled a further hearing on the issue.