Title VII Religious Discrimination Claim, Arising From Termination Due to Vaccine Refusal, Survives Dismissal

In Gardner-Alfred v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 2023 WL 253580 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 26, 2023), the court, inter alia, permitted plaintiff’s religious discrimination claim, asserted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to continue.

This decision is instructive as to what constitutes “religion” within the meaning of Title VII:

Gardner-Alfred has made sufficient allegations that that she was forced to act in violation of her alleged bona fide religious beliefs. The Amended Complaint alleges that Gardner-Alfred is a member of the Temple of Healing Spirit, which believes in “holistic approaches to health focused on diet and spiritual self-awareness, and opposes the invasive techniques of traditional medicine” and that she also believes in the dictates of the “Book of Leviticus.” These allegations are, at this stage, sufficient under Title VII’s definition of religion. They raise a plausible inference that Gardner-Alfred follows the mandates of the Temple of Healing Spirit as, in her own scheme of things, religious mandates and not purely as intellectual beliefs or views about her own self-interest. Moreover, that the Temple of Healing Spirit may not be a well-recognized belief system does not impact this conclusion as “a person need not be a member of a formal religious sect or church to have ‘religious’ beliefs.” Caviezel v. Great Neck Pub. Sch., 701 F. Supp. 2d 414, 427 (E.D.N.Y. 2010), aff’d, 500 F. App’x 16 (2d Cir. 2012); LeFevre, 745 F.2d at 157 (“This limited inquiry reflects our society’s abiding acceptance and tolerance of the unorthodox belief.”); cf. Storm v. Town of Woodstock, N.Y., 32 F. Supp. 2d 520, 527 (N.D.N.Y.), aff’d, 165 F.3d 15 (2d Cir. 1998) (“[P]laintiffs have adequately demonstrated that their participation in full moon gatherings is to them religious and spiritual in nature.”). The sincerity of Gardner-Alfred’s religious beliefs is also a factual question best resolved at summary judgment or trial.

The Amended Complaint also sufficiently alleges a nexus between the objection to immunization and their own religious beliefs. As to Gardner-Alfred, the Amended Complaint alleges that the Temple of Healing Spirit, of which she is a member, “opposes the invasive techniques of Western medicine” and thus the “COVID-19 vaccines represent unacceptable intrusions on her personal form” due to their “provenance, chemical composition, and origin.” As to Diaz, the Amended Complaint states that Diaz is a baptized Catholic and believes that it is “morally unacceptable for her to receive certain vaccines consistent with the teachings of the Catholic church,” including that there is a “moral duty to refuse the use of medical products, including certain vaccines, that are created using human cell lines derived from abortion” unless there are no alternatives available. The Amended Complaint also alleges that “[t]he COVID-19 injections available in the US all involve use of aborted fetal cells in their manufacturing and/or testing,” and that there are alternatives to being vaccinated including Diaz’s natural immunity to the virus, which she acquired from contracting COVID-19 twice. [Cleaned up.]

Based on this, the court concluded that plaintiff’s amended complaint alleges a nexus between plaintiff’s religious beliefs as a Catholic and her refusal to receive the vaccine.

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