2021 | Schools

MCPS employee files federal lawsuit over COVID-19 vaccination mandate

Man says requirement violates religious freedom

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A Montgomery County Public Schools employee on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, alleging its COVID-19 vaccination mandate violates his religious freedoms.

The lawsuit challenges the protocol tightened earlier this month that requires all of MCPS’ 25,000 employees to show proof of being at least partially vaccinated by Thursday or risk firing.

MCPS allows for those with documented medical conditions that prevent them from getting the shot to instead undergo weekly testing. But, unlike many other school districts and jurisdictions across the country, MCPS does not allow the same option for those who say their religion prevents them from getting vaccinated.

The employee has asked the federal judge to impose a preliminary injunction against the school district, which would prohibit MCPS from enforcing its vaccination mandate.

An MCPS spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday morning.

The employee, who is being represented by the Center for American Liberty, is not identified in court documents. He is described as an “administrative employee” who is a “faithful Christian” with a religious objection to “the usage of aborted fetal cells in the testing, creation and manufacturing of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“He holds the sincere belief that obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination would conflict with the edicts of his religion and, therefore, that obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine would constitute a sin in the eyes of God,” court documents say.”

According to several medical organizations, including UCLA Health, COVID-19 vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells. Johnson & Johnson, however, used “fetal cell lines” — grown in a laboratory and started with cells from elective abortions that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s — to develop and produce its vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna used fetal cell lines to test the effectiveness of their vaccines, according to UCLA Health and the Nebraska Medical Center.

As of mid-September, about 75% of the district’s employees had reported their vaccination status, and of those who had already reported, about 96% were fully vaccinated, according to MCPS officials. Under the MCPS mandate, employees must provide proof of having their first dose of the vaccine by Thursday.

More than 300 people have signed an online petition against the mandate, demanding that the district reverse course to allow those who do not wish to be vaccinated to instead undergo weekly testing.

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.

He wrote that firing, or threatening to fire, him based on a religious belief violates his constitutional rights to freedom of religion and is discrimination.

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.

The employee argues that his job requires limited interaction with students and he has a private office in which he can be separated from other employees.

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.

He does not ask for monetary damages, but “reserves the right” to do so if he is fired because of his failure to comply with the mandate, court documents say.

The Montgomery County government is considering a vaccination mandate for its employees, similar to that of MCPS.

On Tuesday, the County Council introduced legislation sponsored by Council Members Hans Riemer and Will Jawando that would mandate COVID-19 vaccination for all county employees, allowing for medical exemptions.

Employees who don’t provide proof of vaccination within seven days of being notified by the county will be put on unpaid leave, according to the legislation. If the employee doesn’t provide proof of vaccination 40 days after being placed on unpaid leave, they could face termination.

The proposal has been met with stiff pushback from employee union leaders and County Executive Marc Elrich.

Elrich wrote in a statement on Tuesday that the legislation is “not smart policy” that will lead to “staffing shortages, diminished public safety, additional financial costs to our taxpayers, and time-consuming legal entanglements.”

A public hearing on the legislation is scheduled for Oct. 19.

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