Woman’s COVID-19 Religious Discrimination Claim Moves Forward

How a federal court analyzed a woman’s COVID-19 religious discrimination claim after she refused the vaccination—and got fired.

A federal court in Pennsylvania would not dismiss a woman’s lawsuit over being fired for refusing—on religious grounds—to comply with her employer’s mandatory vaccination policy. 

Jump ahead to read why the employer denied her first exemption request

Jump ahead to read why the employer denied her second exemption request

Jump ahead to read how Title VII of the Civil Rights Act comes into play

Jump ahead to read what this case means to churches and church leaders


A woman (the “plaintiff”) worked as a nurse for a medical facility (the “defendant”) for more than a decade. 

On August 24, 2021, the defendant implemented a policy that required employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19, or otherwise submit a request for an exemption by September 14, 2021. 

The plaintiff submitted a written request for an exemption on September 10, 2021. 

Her submission contained a request for a religious exemption and a medical exemption. In addition to the exemption form provided by the defendant, the plaintiff also attached the following: (1) a letter written by her pastor at a United Methodist Church; (2) a letter written by an attorney; and (3) a letter written by the plaintiff.

The plaintiff wrote, “God created my body in His image, and obtaining any chemical injections at this time and moving forward is not His plan for me.” 

The pastor’s letter stated that “no one should be forced or coerced into receiving a chemical injection into … the Temple of the Holy Spirit … because the long-term effects of these vaccines are uncertain.” 

The attorney’s letter stated that the plaintiff “objects to vaccines of this nature” …”as a part of [her] religious beliefs.” 

Finally, the plaintiff’s own letter articulated several reasons for her exemption, including the following: 

  • a God-given sovereignty to reject the vaccine;
  • inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;
  • “politically biased” assumptions regarding the public-health threat posed by unvaccinated individuals;
  • the fact that mandated vaccines were not yet FDA approved;
  • the fact that the defendant’s actions did not align with the plaintiff’s morals, beliefs, and spiritual guidance;
  • the fact that the plaintiff’s natural immunity would serve her better than any vaccination;
  • the fact that a chemical injection might deem her body impure in the eyes of the Lord.
  • The plaintiff also cited two scriptural references to the Bible in her letter: “For anyone who does these things … is detestable to the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 25:16), and, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:15).

Exemption denied

On September 15, 2021, the defendant’s deputy general counsel informed the plaintiff that her request had been denied. 

On September 30, 2021, the plaintiff submitted a second request for exemption. In addition to the second exemption form, the plaintiff attached another letter. She wrote,

I believe that life begins at the moment of conception, and abortion is murder; the Covid-19 vaccine was developed using aborted human fetal cells; therefore “the way [the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines] are manufactured and the efficacy tested is by the use of the aforementioned aborted fetal cells, and that goes against my deeply-held religious belief concerning abortion.”

She went on to say she had renewed her faith and belief in Jesus as her Lord and Savior in 2007, and cited additional Scriptures: Psalm 127:3-5; Jeremiah 1:5; and Matthew 18:1-5. 

The defendant issued written warnings to the plaintiff on October 1, 2021, and October 4, 2021, indicating that she was in violation of the defendant’s COVID-19 vaccination policy. 

In addition to mandating the COVID-19 vaccine, the defendant also mandated that its employees either receive the influenza vaccine or request an exemption by November 1, 2021. 

The plaintiff submitted a request for religious exemption to the influenza vaccine on November 1, 2021. 

The plaintiff stated on the provided form that she “belonged to the United Methodist Church since 2007″ and attached a letter where she objected to”any/all vaccine requirements or mandates based on my sincerely held religious belief.” 

She wrote: 

My body is a temple for the Holy Spirit”; “It is a God-given task that I protect the physical integrity of my body against injections and harmful substances”; “Vaccines contain many ingredients that are considered contaminants from a biblical standpoint . . .”; therefore, “I have a deeply held belief that the flu vaccine violates [sic].” 

She again cited Scripture.

Exemption denied, again

The defendant denied this request, too. 

The plaintiff retained an attorney, who sent a letter to the defendant’s deputy general counsel on December 27, 2021, explaining the plaintiff’s reasons for requesting a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. 

The plaintiff participated in the preparation of the letter, which reiterated several reasons for her exemption request.

The letter cited numerous Scriptures, as well as her “belief in the power of prayer and natural remedies as the primary means of healing illnesses and injuries.” She also said she considered to be sins  all the instances of her receiving vaccinations in the past insofar as “her religious experience and observance have become of greater prominence in her life since she suffered from COVID and credited her recovery to God.” 

The deputy general counsel for the defendant responded, “I respectfully disagree with your interpretation of the law and your position.”

The plaintiff continued to work until the defendant terminated her employment on February 11, 2022, for her refusal to abide by the vaccine mandates.

The plaintiff had already filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on October 27, 2021, and an amended Charge on October 29, 2021, alleging that the defendant took unjust discriminatory actions against her. 

The EEOC issued a Notice of Right to Sue to the plaintiff on August 22, 2022.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a federal law, bars employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against an employee based on several grounds, including religion. 

The plaintiff insisted, among other things, that the defendant violated this provision of Title VII. 

The defendant attempted to have the lawsuit dismissed.

In evaluating the defendant’s motion to dismiss, the court first noted the plaintiff rightly followed the EEOC’s process for Title VII claims and was permitted to bring the lawsuit. 

The court then analyzed the judicial standards used for determining whether an employer has potentially unlawfully discriminated against an employee based on religion. It noted the definition of “religion” includes “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief.”

If an employee can (1) show he or she held a religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement, (2) informed the employer of the conflict, and (3) received discipline for not complying with the conflicting job requirement, then the employer bears the burden for showing it offered an accommodation—or that a requested accommodation would cause the employer an undue hardship.

The defendant argued in its motion to dismiss that it could meet its burden because it challenged whether the plaintiff held “a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement.”

The court disagreed with the defendant and rejected the motion to dismiss, concluding that “although [the plaintiff] has secular reasons for objecting to the vaccines, she also has religious reasons, too.” 

The analysis, the court found, was sufficient to allow the lawsuit to survive and go before a jury to decide.

  • The following facts proved persuasive to the court as it reached its decision: 
  • The plaintiff belonged to a specific Methodist church.
  • She alleged that her opposition to the vaccine stemmed from her religious belief.
  • She plead additional facts that elaborated on the nature of the opposition: e.g., that the vaccine would “deem [her] body impure in the eyes of the Lord.”
  • The plaintiff’s beliefs that a “chemical injection” may “deem my body impure in the eyes of the Lord” and her belief that some vaccines are unacceptable because they are developed with the use of aborted fetal cells both deal with “life and death, right and wrong, good and evil … and man’s place in the Universe … therefore, they are concerned with ultimate ideas and are religious in nature.” 

The court cited other legal precedent, noting  

“the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing any person a blanket privilege to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.” . . . [A]n employee cannot simply state that she has a “God given right to make [her] own choices” in order to avoid employers’ requirements for being tested for COVID-19, because such a belief is “fungible enough to cover anything that [employee] trains it on” and is thereby “a blanket privilege.”

The court concluded that the plaintiff alleged additional facts about her religious beliefs that raised it above a “blanket privilege.” For example, the plaintiff alleged that the vaccines would make her “body impure in the eyes of the Lord.” She also alleged “that she opposes abortions for religious reasons and therefore opposes the COVID-19 vaccine because it is developed using aborted human fetal cells.” 

What this case means for churches and pastors 

Many employees have been asked by a church member for a letter documenting the religious basis for their opposition to mandatory vaccinations of any kind. 

This case provides pastors with helpful information in responding to such requests. 

Along with a demonstrated membership to a religious tradition, the plaintiff here used very specific language and scriptural references that tied her sincerely held religious beliefs to her opposition to the defendant’s mandates. The court found this particularly persuasive for the purpose of allowing the lawsuit to proceed. Assuming no settlement is reached first, a jury can now decide whether the defendant’s actions under Title VII constituted unlawful discrimination against the plaintiff.

The case also demonstrates how courts can generally evaluate religious discrimination claims brought against employers under Title VII.

Leeck v. Lehigh Valley Health Network, 2023 WL 4147223 (E.D. Pa. 2023).

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

ajax-loader-largecaret-downcloseHamburger Menuicon_amazonApple PodcastsBio Iconicon_cards_grid_caretChild Abuse Reporting Laws by State IconChurchSalary Iconicon_facebookGoogle Podcastsicon_instagramLegal Library IconLegal Library Iconicon_linkedinLock IconMegaphone IconOnline Learning IconPodcast IconRecent Legal Developments IconRecommended Reading IconRSS IconSubmiticon_select-arrowSpotify IconAlaska State MapAlabama State MapArkansas State MapArizona State MapCalifornia State MapColorado State MapConnecticut State MapWashington DC State MapDelaware State MapFederal MapFlorida State MapGeorgia State MapHawaii State MapIowa State MapIdaho State MapIllinois State MapIndiana State MapKansas State MapKentucky State MapLouisiana State MapMassachusetts State MapMaryland State MapMaine State MapMichigan State MapMinnesota State MapMissouri State MapMississippi State MapMontana State MapMulti State MapNorth Carolina State MapNorth Dakota State MapNebraska State MapNew Hampshire State MapNew Jersey State MapNew Mexico IconNevada State MapNew York State MapOhio State MapOklahoma State MapOregon State MapPennsylvania State MapRhode Island State MapSouth Carolina State MapSouth Dakota State MapTennessee State MapTexas State MapUtah State MapVirginia State MapVermont State MapWashington State MapWisconsin State MapWest Virginia State MapWyoming State IconShopping Cart IconTax Calendar Iconicon_twitteryoutubepauseplay