For 11 years, including during the initial days of the COVID-19 outbreak, Josh Sattley served the community of Beverly Hills as a Firefighter and Paramedic. Now, because he refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for religious reasons, Sattley has been relieved of duty without pay.
The Health Care Worker Vaccine Requirement Order (pdf) took effect as of 11:59 pm on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, and applies to (among many others) “emergency medical technicians (EMTs), EMT—paramedics” and “prehospital care personnel.” Employees were told they “must have received either their single dose of a one-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimen or their second dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine regime by September 30, 2021.”
Sattley said he and his fellow firefighters first heard about the vaccine mandate on Aug. 14. However, at the time, there was no formal policy in place. On Aug. 16, Sattley had a meeting with Beverly Hills Fire Chief Greg Barton regarding the mandate. Barton told Sattley to be vaccinated by Oct. 1 or obtain a religious or medical exemption.
On Sept. 24, Sattley filled out and submitted the City of Beverly Hills Request for Religious Exemption Form from the Los Angeles County Health Officer Requiring COVID-19 Vaccination, which states the Aug. 12 Los Angeles County Health Officer Order requires all employees covered by the Order, including EMTs and EMT-Paramedics, receive the COVID-19 vaccination by Sept. 30. One of the two exemptions allowed by the requirement is “due to sincerely held religious beliefs.”
To the question, “Do you have a sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance that conflicts with the requirement. ” Sattley answered “yes.”
“My signature below indicates that the information I have provided in this form is true and correct,” the form states above the signature line. “I understand if I qualify for a vaccination exemption, I will be required to test weekly for COVID-19 and be subject to other health and safety requirements.”
The parenthetical addition, “(PPE & TESTING ONLY),” was hand-written on the form by Sattley.
“We tried to play by the rules,” Sattley told The Epoch Times, explaining that he and several others had filled out forms requesting religious exemptions. Then Sattley and others were told he would have to attend a “religious exemption interview” to discuss their requests.
‘They Were Challenging the Legitimacy of My Religious Status’
On Sept. 28, Sattley and about 20 of his colleagues were called to attend individual “religious exemption interviews” in a Zoom meeting with City of Beverly Hills Director of Human Resources Shelley Ovrom and her litigator, Jennifer Petrusis. Sattley and his colleagues gathered at the fire station, meeting with Ovrom and Petrusis individually in the station’s library. During his session, Sattley asked Ovrom and Petrusis, what criteria they were using to determine if his religious beliefs were sincere and through what training, or by what authority, they were qualified to make that decision. Sattley said Ovrom deferred the question to Petrusis, who laughed at me and admitted they had no training but insisted they had the authority to ask for clarification.
“They were challenging the legitimacy of my religious status and whether I was sincere or not,” Sattley charged. “They’re determining what my deeply held beliefs are and if they’re good enough to be accepted. Then they asked if my deeply held religious beliefs prevent me from getting vaccinated and I told them my decision is based on my belief in God and in prayer and I pray before every major decision I make in my life.”
Sattley explained to Ovrom and Petrusis that he could not get the vaccination because he had prayed about it and the answer he got through his prayers was that he should not get the vaccination ‘under any circumstance.'”
“After that, they asked if that was going to change in the future and I said ‘no,'” Sattley continued. “Then they asked if I took the flu shot. They were trying to trip me up. I said I had one over eight years ago and frankly, it was irrelevant. One was a choice. This is a mandate.”
Sattley said he found the whole process “insulting.”
“Here [Ovrom] is, interviewing me from the safety of her home on a Zoom call, asking me—who was out there all along on the streets with sick people not knowing what the outcome was going to be—to justify my decision,” Sattley asserted. “There was a possibility we could contract this thing and die. Now this woman is sitting across a desk from me on a Zoom call to determine if my religious belief is strong enough so I can keep my job.”
On Sept. 30, Exemption Determinations were emailed to all personal. Of the 25 applications for exemption, five were for medical and 20 for religious reasons. Of those, 14 were approved on a 30-day temporary status and would be reevaluated at the end of the month. Of those 14, six were denied, including Sattley’s. Of those six, five members complied under duress and got vaccinated.
“I held the line and refused,” Sattley said. “So they put me on leave without pay, which is essentially being fired,” an act he claims is in direct violation of his rights.
“They’ve bypassed my Skelly Rights and my due process and the Firefighters Bill of Rights (pdf), which I am legally owed,” Sattley insists. “Essentially I have been disciplined without the proper process being put in place and they’re going to terminate me whenever they see fit.”
Immediately after the “religious exemption interview” on Sept. 29, Sattley said he was required to sign an attestation form “under duress.” He was not warned ahead of time that he would be required to sign this form or have his request for a religious exemption automatically be denied.
The caveat added to the form verified he was “FORCED” to sign the document.
“I HAVE BEEN FORCED TO SIGN THIS FORM OR ELSE I AM TOLD MY EXEMPTION REQUEST WILL BE DENIED,” the form states in all capital letters above the new signature line. “THIS FORM HAS NOT BEEN NEGOTIATED BY AND BETWEEN THE BEVERLY HILLS FIREFIGHTERS ASSOCIATION AND THE CITY OF BEVERLY HILLS.”
‘I’m so Proud of Him’
“I think it’s amazing,” Josh’s wife, Brittany, told The Epoch Times. “I’m so proud of him.”
“We figured it would come down to them forcing him to get it,” Brittany said. “So after we talked about it and prayed about it we decided it wasn’t something we were willing to do and we’ve always been firm on that. It’s not an option.”
For about six months prior to her husband being placed on leave without pay, Brittany said she and Josh had discussed the possibility of a vaccine mandate coming and how they might respond when the day came. To Brittany, this was one of the most stressful times, as everything happened so fast yet seemed so vague. She wasn’t in on the meetings or other discussions. She relied only on the ambiguous information her husband could relay to her and—because there had never been any definitive policies written and things seemed to be made up as things went along—even he could provide little clarity.
Brittany explained that Josh chose to fill out the short forms rather than the long forms that asked for details and to explain their religious views. To Josh and Brittany, it “wasn’t any of their business.” After that, Josh was told he had to attend a “religious exemption interview” to defend his request, which Brittany was completely against.
“I don’t think that’s any of their business,” Brittany reiterated. “He was never asked about his religion when he was hired. It seemed so wrong. But he was told if he didn’t attend the religious exemption interview his request for a religious exemption would automatically be declined. So he felt like he had to do this or he would be fired.”
The day of the interview Brittany said she was sick to her stomach with worry and “felt like he was being interrogated for his religious views.” But where she had hoped some relief would come when the interview was over with, she said she only “felt worse, more violated.”
The day after the religious exemption interview—while Josh and Brittany were at the beach with fellow firefighters and their wives, trying to find support in each other’s company—they got the email saying his request for a religious exemption had been denied. No reason was given.
In the email, dated Sept. 30, City of Beverly Hills Director of Human Resources Shelley Ovrom thanked Sattley for meeting with her the previous day to discuss his request for a religious exemption.
“I have reviewed and considered the information you provided and have decided to deny your request for an exemption,” Ovrom wrote. “You are hereby required to comply with the County’s Vaccination Requirement and you must provide proof of vaccination by midnight tonight if you are on duty today, September 30, 2021, or by 5:00 p.m. on October 1, 2021 if you are not on duty today. As I explained in the meeting, the City prohibits retaliation against any employee who has requested an exemption. If you believe you are being retaliated against for requesting an exemption, please bring this to my attention immediately.”
Sattley found the last lines of Ovrom’s email humorous.
“She’s prohibited from retaliating against me but wants me to contact her if I think she’s retaliating against me,” he scoffed.
The next day, Oct. 1, Sattley received another email from Ovrom.
“You were notified at 7:45 p.m. yesterday, September 30, 2021 that your request for a religious exemption from the County of Los Angeles Health Care Worker Vaccination Requirement was denied and that you had until 5:00 p.m. today to provide proof of vaccination,” Ovrom charged. “That deadline has passed and we have not received proof of vaccination from you. Therefore, effective immediately, you are placed on unpaid administrative leave until otherwise notified.”
Ovrom then informed Sattley that, while on unpaid administrative leave, he is “to remain available” Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m and that he is to respond to requests by telephone and to attend meetings with reasonable notice.” Otherwise, Sattley was “relieved of duty.” He is not to contact his co-workers or any other City employees regarding work matters, or about “anything that happened at work or anything he believes happened at work.”
“Any adverse discussion, comments, writings, or other behavior toward or about any party involved in this matter in any way that may be considered retaliatory action will not be tolerated,” Ovrom warned. “In accordance with Administrative Regulation HR.02, retaliation is prohibited and may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination. The City has a zero-tolerance policy against retaliatory behavior by any employee or third party who allows or creates a negative situation for any participant in any investigation related to this matter.”
Sattley was further “ordered to refrain from any and all communication that could be perceived as threatening, intimidating or retaliatory” and told “not to return to City Hall or any other City of Beverly Hills facility without making prior arrangements” with her.
On Oct. 8, Ovrom contacted Sattley again.
“I haven’t heard from you since we made the decision to deny your request for exemption from receiving the L.A. County-mandated COVID-19 vaccination,” Ovrom wrote. “Please let me know whether, based on the denial, you intend to be vaccinated so that we can reinstate you to active duty. It is the City’s hope that you will decide to get the vaccine so you can continue to serve the community as a firefighter under the County Order. If you have any further information to provide or would like to discuss the City’s decision, please let me know so I can set up another meeting. Like last time, you would be welcome to bring a representative, and we will have someone from the City Attorney’s office sitting in as well.”
‘The Easy Thing’
Brittany told The Epoch Times she and her husband had considered giving up and leaving California. But then who would be there to fight to reclaim the religious rights that were being taken away? They had also discussed the option of Josh surrendering, of getting the vaccination so he could return to work and the income. But they felt that if they “did the easy thing” it wouldn’t set a good example to their four children.
Despite Ovrom’s threat that “any adverse discussion, comments, writings or other behavior toward or about any party involved in this matter in any way that may be considered retaliatory action will not be tolerated,” and “may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination,” Labor Code section 232.5 prohibits an employer from discharging or retaliating against an employee who discusses or discloses information about the employer’s working conditions.
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) makes it “illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee” because of a protected characteristic,” such as “sincerely held religious beliefs, observances, and practices.” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 offers the same protections at the federal level. The definitions of what qualifies a religious belief are similar under both California and federal law. However, there is a major difference when it comes to the standard by which an employer can deny a request for a religious exemption.
Guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), makes it clear that, unless behaviors can be cited that contradict an employees claim of ” sincerely held” religious beliefs, those beliefs cannot be questioned or deemed invalid. Furthermore, a request for a religious exemption can only be denied if the employer can prove the accommodation would impose an undue financial burden. Under California law, an employer must provide proof of “undue hardship” to deny a request for religious exemption.
‘Heroes to Zeros’
What disappoints Sattley the most is that when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, and the world was gripped with fear, paramedics, firefighters, and hospital staff were celebrated for their brave service to their communities.
“We went from heroes to zeros,” Sattley lamented. “They’ve literally turned us into villains, into the bad guys. They turned us into a risk, a threat to the community and for me, for someone who swore to protect and serve the community and to risk my life for them, it’s very hurtful that those who sat in the comfort of their own home during the outbreak are removing me from my job. It pisses me off. It’s very hurtful and it ripped my heart out. It’s still very emotional and raw because it happened so quickly.”
A Nov. 9 report by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) admits that “since vaccines are not 100 percent effective at preventing infection, some people who are fully vaccinated will still get COVID-19,” and “people who get vaccine breakthrough infections can be contagious.”
Conversely, an Emory University study, published July 14, 2021, suggests patients who recover from COVID-19 “retain broad and effective longer-term immunity to the disease.” In November, the CDC said that “it has no record of people who are naturally immune transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19.”
“I had COVID-19 back in January. So I am naturally immune,” Sattley, the sidelined firefighter/paramedic revealed. “Many of us are.”
The Epoch Times reached out to Barton, Ovrom, and Petrusis.
Zachary Stieber contributed to this report.