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Anti-Vaccine Movement Struggles to Show Religious Discrimination

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine mandates have given rise to lawsuits by anti-vaccine plaintiffs based on various grounds. Notably, claims of religious discrimination have been included in many of these lawsuits. However, the religious discrimination arguments based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have not gained as much traction to date with most courts.

Most recently, Rodrique v. Hearst Communications Inc. saw summary judgment granted for the defendant employer in Massachusetts federal court on a religious discrimination count because the court viewed the claim as a personal medical judgment about the necessity of the COVID-19 vaccine “rigged out” with religious verbiage rather than an actual religious belief. Rodrique v. Hearst communications, Inc., 2024 WL 733325, at *2 (D. Mass. Feb. 22, 2024).  The court focused on Rodrique’s assertion that he objects to ingesting artificial or man-made substances or substances developed using fetal cells. The court pointed to Rodrique’s own statements where he admitted regular use of such medications he views as medically necessary despite knowing the medications are artificial and man-made. Additionally, Rodrique also admitted taking medications and receiving vaccinations previously without questioning whether fetal cells were used at any stage of their development. The court found that this rejection of the plaintiff’s wish to be able only to reject certain substances and medical products at his discretion negated the foundation of a religious basis or belief. A plaintiff must show both that his belief is “religious” in nature and that it is “sincerely held.” Thornton v. Ipsen Biopharms., Inc., 2023 WL 7116739, at *3 (D. Mass. Oct. 26, 2023) (referencing another recent COVID-19 vaccination challenge that was dismissed and quoting the standard for a religious belief under Title VII as stated in E.E.O.C. v. Union Independiente de la Autoridad de Acueductos y Alcantarillados de Puerto Rico, 279 F.3d 49, 56 (1st Cir. 2002). According to the EEOC, under Title VII, a belief is “religious” if it is a “sincere and meaningful” belief that “occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by . . . God.” U.S. v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 166 (1965) (the EEOC uses this definition for Title VII claims while acknowledging Seeger arose under the Military Selective Service Act for conscientious objector exemptions).

Historical View of Exemptions to Vaccines

The U.S. Supreme Court first ruled on vaccine exemptions in 1905, with Jacobson v. Massachusetts. With a smallpox epidemic raging through the Northeast United States starting in 1901, Boston and Cambridge ordered the vaccination of all residents. The plaintiff, Hennig Jacobson, argued that the vaccine order violated his liberties under the Constitution. However, the Court held that states have a legitimate authority to infringe on personal freedoms during a public health crisis reasonably. 

This paved the way for successful vaccination programs throughout the country during the 20th century, including vaccines for polio, measles, and others. However, this success, with many diseases faded from public memory, gave birth to a vaccine-hesitancy movement, which is at the root of court challenges to vaccine mandates today. 

The U.S. Supreme Court continues to reject most challenges to vaccine mandates. In November 2023, the Court declined to hear an appeal related to COVID-19 vaccine requirements in the workplace in Katie Sczesny, et al. v. Murphy, Gov. of New Jersey, et al. This case was brought by four New Jersey nurses who challenged a workplace vaccine mandate on religious freedom grounds in addition to health concerns about the vaccine itself. The plaintiffs sought an injunction of the executive orders mandating COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for healthcare workers. The court ruled against these plaintiffs because, among other things, that Jacobson established that there is no fundamental right to refuse vaccination in the context of COVID-19 and thus rational basis review applies to vaccine requirements. Sczesny v. New Jersey, 2022 WL 2047135, at *9 (D.N.J. June 7, 2022). In this instance, New Jersey had a rational basis for mandating the COVID-19 vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

What Should Employers Expect in 2024?

With many vaccine mandates for COVID-19 lifted, employers should see fewer new claims arising from discrimination based on religious discrimination or other reasons sought for vaccine exemptions. Many preexisting cases are still working their way through the courts. However, Jacobson still stands as precedent for now. Further, if an employee brings a religious discrimination claim under Title VII related to vaccines, they will likely have to show they are not just opposed to only certain medications based on their personal views, as the law still remains tilted in favor of employers on this issue.

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