U.S. Appeals Court Revives Lawsuit Against Mayo Clinic Over COVID-19 Vaccine Firings

U.S. Appeals Court Revives Lawsuit Against Mayo Clinic Over COVID-19 Vaccine Firings - Adobe Stock Image by scandamerican Photo Source: Adobe Stock Image by scandamerican

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday revived a lawsuit against the Mayo Clinic, alleging the illegal termination of five employees who refused COVID-19 vaccination or regular testing on religious grounds. The appellate court ruled that the lower court had erred in dismissing the consolidated lawsuits.

The lawsuit was initially filed by two nurses, a paramedic, a CT technician, and a bacteriology lab supervisor who claimed their firings violated their sincere Christian religious beliefs. Three of the employees were terminated for refusing to receive the vaccine, while the other two, granted religious exemptions, were dismissed for declining weekly COVID-19 tests. The plaintiffs argued their refusals were based on their belief that their bodies are temples and their objection to the use of fetal cells in vaccine production.

The three-judge panel from the St. Louis-based 8th Circuit Court, comprising Judges Duane Benton, Ralph Erickson, and Jonathan Kobes, unanimously ruled that the district court had improperly emphasized that many Christians choose to receive the vaccine. Judge Benton wrote, "Beliefs do not have to be uniform across all members of a religion or acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others."

This opinion underscores the court's stance that religious beliefs, even if not shared by all members of a faith, are protected under the law. The panel criticized the lower court for not considering the entirety of the complaints and for focusing narrowly on parts of the complaints to deem the anti-vaccine beliefs as "personal" or "medical."

The Mayo Clinic, like many healthcare employers, implemented a COVID-19 vaccination mandate in 2021, requiring all employees to be vaccinated or, if exempted, to undergo weekly testing. The plaintiffs sought religious exemptions under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Minnesota's anti-discrimination law, arguing that both the vaccine and testing requirements violated their religious beliefs.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim dismissed the claims in August 2023, stating the plaintiffs had only broadly stated their religious beliefs without demonstrating how the vaccine and testing specifically violated them. This dismissal was overturned by the appeals court, which sided with the plaintiffs and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC had filed an amicus brief arguing that Judge Tunheim had set the bar too high in determining the nature of the plaintiffs' objections.

The case, known as Ringhofer v. Mayo Clinic Ambulance, has now been sent back to the district court for further proceedings.

This ruling could set a precedent for similar cases, particularly those involving conflicts between employer mandates and employee religious beliefs. The appeals court's decision highlights the balancing act between public health policies and religious freedoms.

The case will continue under the supervision of U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, and it could potentially impact how religious exemptions are handled in the context of workplace health requirements.

Amanda Tjan
Amanda Tjan
Amanda is a freelance journalist interested in current events regarding policy and healthcare. She earned her bachelor's degree in social welfare from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently attending medical school at Western University of Health Sciences and aspires to improve the lives of others through science and human connection.
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