2021 | Schools

MCPS seeks dismissal of federal lawsuit challenging COVID-19 vaccination mandate

District says it granted employee’s religious exemption, rendering arguments moot

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Montgomery County Public Schools leaders are asking a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging its employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate because it has granted a religious exemption to the administrator who filed the case, rendering his arguments moot.

The lawsuit, filed in late September, challenges the protocol tightened earlier in the month that requires all of MCPS’ 25,000 employees to show proof of being vaccinated or risk being fired.

Originally, several district officials told Bethesda Beat there would be no religious exemption to the mandate. But within days of the employee’s lawsuit being filed, MCPS sent a “clarifying message” to staff members and told Bethesda Beat employees “may submit either a medical or religious exemption.”

In his lawsuit, the employee — who has not made his name public — argued that not granting religious exemptions to the mandate would violate his constitutional rights to freedom of religion and would be discrimination.

He had said his request to be exempted from the mandate had been denied.

In new court filings this week, attorneys for the school system say they granted the employee’s religious exemption on Monday. Court documents say he submitted the request on Oct. 5.

Thus, the employee’s request for an injunction that would prevent the wider implementation of the mandate is moot, according to MCPS attorneys.

The attorneys argue that the decision to grant the exemption “was not a deviation from” the district’s “ordinary practices,” citing the district’s nondiscrimination policy.

“Decisions have been (and will continue to be) made after considering the specific information each staff member provides in support of the accommodation request and the essential functions of that staff member’s position of employment,” court documents say. “Defendants’ treatment of religious accommodation requests related to the Vaccine Policy has been (and will continue to be) no different than their treatment of religious accommodation requests related to any other workplace policy.”

An MCPS spokesman on Tuesday did not respond to a request for data about how many employees had made and been granted a medical or religious exemption to the requirement.

The Liberty Center, the organization representing the MCPS employee in the lawsuit, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the original lawsuit, the man was 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.

Several common medications — like Tylenol, Tums, Benadryl and Sudafed — are developed in similar ways during research and development, according to WebMD.

During a meeting last week, the Montgomery County school board pushed back the deadlines for its employees to provide proof of vaccination.

Staff members must provide proof they’ve been at least partially vaccinated by Oct. 15. Originally, the verification was due Sept. 29.

The deadline to provide proof of full vaccination was delayed from Oct. 29 to Nov. 15.

The school board did not discuss its reasoning for the change during the meeting. But in an interview afterward, board President Brenda Wolff said the decision was made because many employees have had trouble uploading their proof of vaccination and need help.

In late September, MCPS reported that about 78% of its employees had submitted proof of vaccination.

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