Ann Arbor firefighter files lawsuit over firing due to rejected religious exemption
Who gets to decide sincerity when it comes to 1st Amendment rights?
Standoff on COVID-19 vaccine ended a 22-year career
Tim Rugg, an Ann Arbor firefighter for 22 years, says he was fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccination after being refused a religious exemption. Rugg and three other Ann Arbor city employees have filed a civil lawsuit against the city. Rugg said the reason the city denied him a religious exemption is because the city determined his claim was not sincere.
Ann Arbor implemented a COVID-19 vaccination requirement in August 2021. Rugg said he submitted a religious exemption request shortly after but was refused on the grounds he was not sincere enough in his faith. He said he was suspended without pay in November 2021 and was terminated a month later during a meeting with human resources.
There was no other reason given for Rugg’s firing, according to Noah Hurwitz, his lawyer.
During the termination meeting, Rugg said, two union representatives, his lawyer, and his pastor attended, along with two of the city’s human resource employees.
Rugg’s union went to arbitration and the arbitrator said Ruggs had to undergo a second interview to determine his sincerity. The interview happened on May 15, 2023, with Rugg’s pastor present. Again, the city decided Rugg’s claim was not sincere.
Hurwitz said his law firm is taking on many similar cases. He believes that 98% of employers conducted themselves properly when it came to their COVID-19 policies, including granting exemptions. He also said that some clients say their employers acted inappropriately.
Hurwitz said the city of San Francisco was also sued after it fired employees for what it deemed insufficient sincerity. A district court judge ruled that the employees did not prove their sincere belief, and therefore ruled in favor of the city.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal. It remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to the judge to reevaluate the claims “applying the proper failure-to-accommodate inquiry.” The Ninth Circuit court ruled, “It seems that the district court erroneously held that Appellants had not asserted sincere religious beliefs because their beliefs were not scientifically accurate.”
The appeals court said that one’s religious beliefs do not have to be “consistent or rational” to be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Bloomberg Law said employers who are hasty to deny a religious exemption “may run afoul of federal and state law, creating a liability for employers.”
Bloomberg said that an employee’s religious beliefs do not need to be consistently observed to be deemed sincere. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that “a sincere religious believer doesn’t forfeit his religious rights merely because he is not scrupulous in his observance, although ‘[e]vidence tending to show that an employee acted in a manner inconsistent with his professed religious belief is, of course, relevant to the factfinder’s evaluation of sincerity.’”
The city of Ann Arbor declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Jamie A. Hope
Assistant Managing Editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential
Jamie A. Hope serves as the assistant managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. She owns a consulting business, and previously worked at the Michigan Legislature as a legislative aide, as well as for the House Republican Policy Office. She is an author and has written for American Thinker and Human Events. Jamie has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Michigan State University.
Jamie A. Hope may be reached at Hope@mackinac.org.
Newsweek: Religious exemption prevails in an EEOC case in Georgia.
Link to full report includes video.
A hospital worker who was fired for refusing to get a shot of the flu vaccine has won a $45,000 payout from the facility he used to work for, according to a press release by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The worker, who is unnamed in the press release dated December 22, had asked the hospital—Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Inc. (CHOA)—in 2019 to be exempted from the facility's flu vaccination requirements based on "sincerely held religious beliefs," something which the hospital allows in its procedures.
Despite the fact that the hospital had already granted the same employee a religious exemption in 2017 and 2018, the following year CHOA denied his request and fired him. This happened despite the employee being a maintenance worker and having little interaction with the public or members of staff, according to the EEOC.
The former employee then filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the CHOA thriough the federal agency in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, which eventually ruled in his favor.
The EEOC said that the reported conduct of the pediatric hospital "violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits firing an employee because of their religion and requires that employers reasonably accommodate the sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees."
The lawsuit will also change the way the hospital considers flu shot exemptions. According to the EEOC, CHOA will have to "presume the exemption eligibility of employees with remote workstations or who otherwise work away from the presence of other employees or patients, and to protect the ability of such employees to seek alternative positions within CHOA if their religious exemption request is denied."
The ruling also requires CHOA to train "relevant employees" on religious accommodation rights under Title VII.
Vaccine mandates are common for health workers, as they are considered to have an obligation towards their patients' safety. But mandatory vaccines have recently become a particularly contentious issue, especially after the COVID-19 emergency.
"It is the responsibility of an employer to accommodate its employees' sincerely held religious beliefs," said Marcus G. Keegan, the regional attorney for the EEOC's Atlanta District Office, in a written statement.
"Unless doing so would require more than a minimal cost, an employer may not deny requested religious accommodations, let alone revoke those previously granted without issue. The EEOC is pleased that the employee has been compensated and that CHOA has agreed to take steps to ensure that it meets its obligation to evaluate religious accommodation requests in a manner consistent with federal law."
MI Cap Con reports resolution of a benefits issue in the Ann Arbor case.
The EEOC civil rights suit appears to be ongoing in US District Court.
Ann Arbor firefighter wins appeal, receives unemployment benefits
Firefighter to get benefits after city fails to show at hearing
Former Ann Arbor firefighter Tim Rugg has won his appeal to receive unemployment benefits after the city fired him in December 2021. Michigan Capitol Confidential previously reported on Rugg’s dismissal, which came after 22 years of employment, for refusing a COVID-19 vaccination.
Rugg had requested a religious exemption from the vaccination mandate, which the city denied, saying he was insincere. The city then denied Rugg’s claim for unemployment benefits, citing misconduct under the Michigan Employment Security Act.
Rugg filed an appeal with the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. He won a reversal June 19 from Administrative Law Judge Denise McNulty.
Denise McNulty noted that courts have defined “misconduct” as actions that exhibit willful or wanton disregard of an employer’s interests, with an intent to do the employer harm, repeatedly. Rugg disputed the city’s claim he had acted that way. The city did not show up to the hearing McNulty conducted, leading her to rule in his favor. “His unrebutted and credible testimony contained no information of wrongdoing or disregard of the employer’s interest,” McNulty wrote. As a result, she concluded, “The claimant is not disqualified for benefits from the misconduct provision” of state law.
Rugg and three other city employees who were also denied religious exemptions have filed a civil lawsuit against Ann Arbor. They seek a monetary award, including payment for mental anguish and reimbursement for legal fees.
Rugg said his union’s lawyers have tried to negotiate with the city to reverse his termination and reinstate him but have not succeeded.
The city did not respond to an email seeking comment.
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