2021 | Schools

Facing lawsuit, MCPS now says it will allow religious exemptions for vaccination mandate

District officials previously said ‘no religious exemptions allowed’

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Montgomery County Public Schools now says it will allow employees to apply for religious exemptions to its COVID-19 vaccination mandate, after an administrative employee filed a federal lawsuit challenging the requirement.

Previously, district officials said there would be no religious exemption.

In early September, the school board tightened its vaccination mandate, requiring all of the district’s 25,000 employees to show proof of full vaccination by the end of October or risk firing.

In an email Friday morning, MCPS spokesman Chris Cram wrote that staff members “may submit either a medical or religious exemption, and those exemptions have been and will continue to be considered.”

In a separate email last week, however, Cram wrote that “there are no religious exemptions allowed.”

Three school board members — Lynne Harris, Rebecca Smondrowski and President Brenda Wolff — all told Bethesda Beat the day the mandate was updated that it did not allow for religious exemptions.

In an interview Friday morning, Harris said: “The only exemption discussed was medical, and requiring solid medical documentation.” She said she was not aware of a religious exemption to the mandate.

Asked if she supports having a religious exemption, Harris said, “my knee-jerk reaction is I don’t, but I’m going to do a deep dive on the legal side.”

“With my background (as a nurse), my bias is going to be ‘protect public health and safety,’ especially the children,” Harris said.

In an interview Friday, Cram said employees have been submitting requests for religious accommodations and those requests have been being reviewed and considered. He said “this is a modification in messaging” to ensure staff members know they can apply for a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

All employees who are approved for an exemption must be tested for the virus weekly.

In the federal lawsuit, filed Tuesday, an “administrative employee” who does not work in a school and who describes himself as a “faithful Christian” argues that firing or threatening to fire him for not getting the vaccine based on his religious beliefs violates his constitutional rights and is discrimination.

In the lawsuit, the MCPS employee alleges he applied for an exemption to the mandate, but was denied because it does not permit religious exemptions.

The employee is willing to continue complying with all other mitigation measures, including weekly COVID-19 testing and wearing a face mask, and is willing to work from home or implement additional social distancing measures in MCPS facilities, according to court documents.

Court records say he has been an MCPS employee for more than a decade and plans to continue working for the school district until he retires. If he is fired, his family — including “several” children — would lose about two-thirds of their income and the health insurance provided by MCPS.

A “case management conference” was held on Wednesday, according to online court records, during which MCPS “represented that it will maintain the status quo” until the case is resolved. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 21.

An attorney for the employee could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

About 76% of MCPS employees have provided proof of vaccination, according to school district officials. Proof of being fully vaccinated is required by Oct. 29. Employees were required to provide proof of at least one shot by Thursday.

In an email, Cram wrote that vaccinations are “one important tool to helping schools stay safe.”

Employees can be disciplined for not complying, “up to and including termination,” according to MCPS messages.

“It is also important to remember that children under 12 cannot yet get the COVID-19 vaccination,” Cram wrote. “MCPS must impress the importance of this and all mitigation efforts so that we can keep students and staff safe and reduce the numbers of quarantine as much as possible.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com