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Religion and the Law

Religious Exemption Claim Brought by Employees Who Objected to COVID Vaccination and Testing Can Go Forward

So says a federal appellate court, applying federal employment law, which requires employers to exempt religious objectors even from generally applicable job rules, unless exemption would impose an "undue hardship" on the employer.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (as amended in 1972) goes beyond just banning religious discrimination by employers; it requires employers to exempt sincere religious objectors even from generally applicable, neutral employment rules, unless granting the exemption would work an "undue hardship." And, as with American religious exemption regimes more generally, the question is whether the employee has a sincere religious objection, not whether the objection is endorsed by a large religious group, or makes logical sense. Here's how this was Friday's Eighth Circuit decision in Ringhofer v. Mayo Clinic, Ambulance, written by Judge Duane Benton and joined by Judges Ralph Erickson and Jonathan Kobes, applies this statutory rule:

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Mayo required all employees to receive the vaccine. Any employee exempted from vaccination was required to test weekly. On December 3, 2021, Mayo notified all employees that they must comply with the policy by January 3 or be terminated.

The plaintiffs sought religious accommodations for the vaccination requirement, citing their Christian religious beliefs. Mayo denied the accommodations for Shelly Kiel, Kenneth Ringhofer, and Anita Miller, who refused to get the vaccine. It granted vaccination exemptions to Sherry Ihde and Kristin Rubin, but required them to test for Covid-19 weekly, which they refused….

Kiel, Ringhofer, and Miller were denied vaccination accommodations and fired for not taking the vaccine. Each argues that their Christian religious beliefs prevent them from taking the Covid-19 vaccine. Each plaintiff invokes two principles in arguing that their religious beliefs conflict with the vaccine mandate: (1) their "body is a temple," and thus they shall not inject it with impure or unknown substances, and (2) their anti-abortion beliefs, rooted in their religion, prevent them from using a product developed with fetal cell lines…..

At this early stage, when the complaints are read as a whole and the nonmoving party receives the benefit of reasonable inferences, Kiel, Miller, and Ringhofer adequately identify religious views they believe to conflict with taking the Covid-19 vaccine. Each of these three plaintiffs plausibly connect their refusal to receive the vaccine with their religious beliefs:

  • Kiel's complaint states that her "religious beliefs prevent her from putting into her body the Covid-19 vaccines … because they were all produced with or tested with cells from aborted human babies. Receiving the vaccine would make her a participant in the abortion that killed the unborn baby."
  • Miller's complaint states that her "religious exemption was based on opposition to the use of vaccines produced with or tested by aborted baby cells. Plaintiff Miller believes in the sanctity of life from conception until natural death. She lives her life according to her sincerely held religious beliefs. … She is Christian and has determined she cannot, consistent with her conscience, take the Covid-19 vaccine, and to do so would make her complicit in the killing of the unborn babies from whom the cells used in the vaccines came."
  • Ringhofer's complaint states that "his body is a Temple to the Holy Spirit and is strongly against abortion. Plaintiff Ringhofer believes the Vaccine Mandate violates his religious beliefs and conscience to take the Covid-19 vaccine because the vaccines were produced with or tested with fetal cell lines. Ringhofer … [believes] that 'Using the fetal cells in the development of it, knowing about it, is against my religion.'"

The district court[, which rejected plaintiffs' claims,] did not "consider the complaint as a whole," instead focusing on specific parts of the complaints to rule the anti-vaccine beliefs "personal" or "medical." As EEOC Guidance says, "overlap between a religious and political view does not place it outside the scope of Title VII's religious protections, as long as the view is part of a comprehensive religious belief system."

The district court erred by emphasizing that many Christians elect to receive the vaccine. This does not defeat the plaintiffs' beliefs…. "[T]he guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause[ ] is 'not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.'" …

Rubin and Ihde received exemptions from the vaccine mandate. As part of Mayo's policy, however, they were required to undergo weekly testing for Covid-19. They did not receive a testing exemption, refused to submit to it, and were fired. They contend they plausibly pled a religious belief that conflicted with Covid-19 testing:

  • Rubin's complaint states: "Now the Holy Spirit dwells in her and she believes her body is a temple for the Holy Spirit that she is duty bound to honor. She does not believe in putting unnecessary vaccines or medications into her body, or going to the doctor or allowing testing of her body when it is not necessary. Accordingly, it violates her conscience to take the vaccine or to engage in weekly testing or sign a release of information that gives out her medical information."
  • Ihde's complaint states: "My faith is in my Creator who is my Healer (Ex 15:26). Faith is belief combined with action (Jam 2:17). Shifting my faith from my Creator to medicine is the equivalent of committing idolatry-holding medicine in greater esteem then Elohim (Col 3:5). I believe it is legitimate to utilize modern medicine for life-saving purposes; however, there is a fine line between using it and abusing it… Excessive procedures, vanity surgeries, and redundant intrusive testing of healthy, asymptomatic humans is irresponsible and crosses the line violating my conscience before Elohim…"

Rubin and Ihde plausibly pled that their religious beliefs conflict with the testing requirement. As discussed, beliefs do not have to be uniform across all members of a religion or "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others." By connecting their objection to testing to specific religious principles (Rubin's belief that "her body is a temple" and Ihde's belief that testing in this case may be "the equivalent of committing idolatry"), they have satisfied their burden at this stage.

All plaintiffs adequately pled a conflict between their Christian religious beliefs and Mayo Clinic's Covid-19 policy.

The Court of Appeals therefore sent the case back down to the district court for further proceedings. Those proceedings may include a jury trial on whether plaintiffs' objections were indeed, as a factual matter, sincere and religious, and may also include legal judgments or factual findings as to whether allowing the plaintiffs an exemption from the vaccination and testing requirements would impose an "undue hardship" on the employer (which the Court has defined as "substantial increased costs in relation to the conduct of its particular business").