Former Employees Allege School District Denied COVID-19 Vaccine Religious Exemptions

Former Employees Allege School District Denied COVID-19 Vaccine Religious Exemptions
An employee of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) receives her COVID-19 vaccination at a site opened by the LAUSD for its employees in Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 17, 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)
City News Service

POMONA, Calif.—More than 20 former Hacienda La Puente Unified School District (HLPUSD) employees, all of whom objected to the district's employee coronavirus vaccination mandate, are suing the district, alleging that they were wrongfully denied exemptions on religious grounds.

The plaintiffs' Pomona Superior Court lawsuit alleges religious discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. They seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the amended suit brought on March 10.

"The sincerity of an employee's stated religious belief is usually not in dispute and is generally presumed or easily established," the suit states. "Employers are not and should not be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the proper reasons."

Instead of following the law to approve the plaintiffs' bids for religious exemptions and reasonable accommodations, the school district denied their requests and terminated them, the suit states.

An HLPUSD representative couldn't be immediately reached for comment.

The Board of Education on Sept. 23, 2021, approved a resolution requiring, in part, that all district employees report their COVID-19 vaccination status to human resources and that as of Oct. 16, 2021, employees would only be allowed on campus if they were fully vaccinated and submitted proof of being so.

The resolution allowed exemptions for medical and religious reasons with the provision those exempted tested weekly.

The school board listed 18 "misleading and/or exaggerated factors to support the resolution mandating that its employees be vaccinated to safely work within the district," signaling the board's "contempt for employees who would seek religious exemptions to the mandate," the suit states.

Two of those examples included the board's finding that COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States have proven safe and highly effective at curbing the spread of the coronavirus as well as another conclusion that the coronavirus continues to pose a serious health risk, especially to individuals who are not fully vaccinated—neither of which are supported by scientific data, the suit states.

The plaintiffs submitted requests for religious accommodation, maintaining that accepting or receiving any of the three currently available COVID-19 vaccines would be a violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, in part because all of the vaccines are developed and produced from aborted fetal cell lines, the suit states.

"Plaintiffs' sincerely held religious beliefs compel them to abstain from accepting or injecting any of these products into their bodies, regardless of the perceived benefits or rationales," according to the complaint.

Each plaintiff received a denial letter from the HLPUSD that states in part, "The purpose of this correspondence is to inform you that the district has considered your request and supporting materials and hereby denies your request for exemption."

The HLPUSD further stated in its denial letters that accommodations could not be provided to the plaintiffs due to the undue hardship presented by the requests, but the district "completely fails to provide factual evidence to support a claim of undue hardship," the suit states.

"Further evidence of HLPUSD's discrimination with these denials is present in HLPUSD's turning a blind eye to the current state of the science, which clearly indicates that vaccinated individuals spread COVID-19 just as unvaccinated individuals," the suit states.

The district's "malicious and reckless actions are causing intense undue stress for its former employees, who were forced to choose between keeping their jobs, which they loved, and honoring their most deeply held religious beliefs about life, purpose and death," the suit states.

The plaintiffs in the suit are Thuy Monge, Jamie Askus, Alice Acevedo, Ida Aguayo, Jose Araiza, Marisol Arevalo, Diana Ayala,  Maechelle Brown, Noemi Covarrubias, Desteny Flores, Elizabeth Hernandez, Heidi Holguin, Melissa Lomenzo, Vanessa Lozano, Dora Luna, Melissa Lucht, Romelia Mancillas, Benny Morales, Miranda Noriega, Melissa Ramon, Ashley Smith, Matthew Solorzano, Kerry Stavert-Wooten, Brittney Strand, Marysol Thomas and Sean Van Gundy.

The suit doesn't state the jobs the plaintiffs held in the district.