Religious group sues SF for denying religious exemptions to COVID vaccine mandate

San Francisco, the first major US city to require its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, is being sued by four former workers who say the city should have granted their demands for religious exemptions.

“San Francisco excludes religious watchers from continuing employment,” attorneys for the Pacific Justice Institute, a nonprofit religious conservative organization, said in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court.

The case is not unique — allegations of religious discrimination in vaccination mandates have been filed in federal courts across the country, with little success. And as these courts have noted, in 1905 the Supreme Court dismissed a clergyman’s challenge to a smallpox vaccination mandate for adults in Cambridge, Mass., ruling that his claims of individual liberty were outweighed by the need for public safety.

What may be notable in the case of San Francisco is that, of the city’s 35,000 employees, 1,070 have requested religious or medical exemptions since the vaccination order was issued in June 2021. Eight religious exemptions and 10 medical exemptions were granted, said Mawuli Tugbenyoh. , spokesperson for the Human Resources Department.

And the others ?

“To my knowledge, the others were either terminated or forced into retirement,” said Kevin Snider, lead attorney in the lawsuit.

But Tugbenyoh said most opponents eventually agreed to be vaccinated and only a small number, perhaps 10%, left involuntarily. A stark example is San Francisco Film Commission executive director Susannah Greason Robbins, who resigned late last year after being denied a religious exemption.

Under city rules, employees who may show a conflict between the vaccine mandate and their religious beliefs, or who are allergic to ingredients in available vaccines, still risk losing their jobs unless a 60-day search by the employee and city officials find an alternate position that would not endanger other employees or the public.

For San Francisco employees, “the vaccine requirement is citywide,” Tugbenyoh said. “You can’t just work from home.”

The lawsuit said the 60-day search — “a mad dash,” as the attorneys described it — failed to find replacement jobs for three of the plaintiffs, a customer service employee, a utilities and an engineer. The fourth, a building inspector, was told that he had not demonstrated that he had religious beliefs prohibiting vaccination.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys accused the city of anti-religious bias.

Department of Human Resources staff were given directions that caused them to use “a yellow eye” when reviewing requests for religious exemptions, the lawyers wrote. They cited a slide shown to staff that told them to reject “personal choices or fears disguised as religion”.

But some employees “have religious beliefs that overlap with personal and religious views,” the lawsuit says. ‘An employee might believe in the sanctity of life or that a Christian’s body literally houses the Holy Spirit’, a belief that would ban the use of any vaccine ‘developed from the use of aborted fetal tissue’ .

Although fetal cells have been used in research that has led to the development of coronavirus vaccines, none of the major vaccines, such as those made by Pfizer and Moderna, contain fetal cells. The city noted that the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have approved the use of these vaccines.

This shows that the city is trying to “identify heretics” by refusing such requests for religious exemptions, according to the lawsuit.

He also said San Francisco unfairly requires objectors to show they sincerely believe in an established or recognized religion.

“Because faith is inherently subjective, a religious objector cannot be held to an objective measure of evidence regarding what was in their heart, mind, and soul,” the lawsuit said. He seeks reinstatement of employees, damages and court orders against city standards for exemptions to the vaccination mandate.

Another lawsuit on behalf of three city employees, also represented by the Pacific Justice Institute, was filed in March, claiming the vaccine was derived from fetal cells, violated their religious beliefs and was ineffective against the disease. Their request to overturn the vaccine mandate was denied on September 23 by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of Oakland, who said their claims “run counter to scientific consensus” and are contrary to public interest. public for health. The plaintiffs appealed.

Bob Egelko is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko