“If a private school can articulate a good business reason for why they do what they do … you’re allowed to have a policy in place,” like the one at issue here, defense counsel said.
By P.J. D’Annunzio, Law.com, September 16, 2021.
The original version of this story was published on The Legal Intelligencer.
A Delaware County Court of Common Pleas judge has ruled that simply having a “sincerely held religious belief” is not enough to prove discrimination for denial of a religious exemption to a private school’s vaccination policy for students.
In a Sept. 14 ruling, Judge Kelly Eckel denied plaintiff Dominic Beck’s petition for a preliminary injunction against The Williamson College of the Trades in Media, Pennsylvania, ruling that his religious discrimination claim related to his expulsion for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine would likely not succeed on the merits under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, and that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies first.
Marjorie Obod, who led the Dilworth Paxson legal team representing Williamson, said the matter was one of first impression in that it is the first to delve into how such claims are analyzed under the PHRA. She added Eckel’s ruling would likely be instructive in similar cases.
“If a private school can articulate a good business reason for why they do what they do … you’re allowed to have a policy in place,” like the one at issue here, Obod said.
Christopher Ferrara, special counsel to the Thomas More Society, represents Beck and did not respond to a request for comment.
Beck, a Catholic third-year student at Williamson, claimed that immunization would compromise his ability to act in accordance to his faith. However, Eckel noted in her opinion that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Beck complied with the school’s immunization policy, obtaining vaccines for measles/mumps/rubella, meningitis, tetanus, and hepatitis B, “some or all of which were vaccines he knew to have been developed by using aborted fetal cell lines.”
Additionally, Eckel said that both Beck and a bioethicist who testified at a hearing agreed that the Catholic Church has deemed it morally permissible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. But beyond that, Eckel said, Williamson had a good reason for instituting the vaccine mandate.
“Williamson offered a lawful, non-discriminatory reason for the policy (to protect the health and safety of its students and staff during a global pandemic and to better ensure the continued operations of the school during the 2021-22 school year) and demonstrated that it applied the policy in the same fashion, regardless of the identity or faith of the applicants who requested to exception,” Eckel said.
She also said that Beck presented no evidence that Williamson’s denial of an exemption was pretext for religious discrimination.
“Any restriction imposed by a public accommodation could infringe on a person’s religious beliefs,” Eckel said, “and the fact that a proprietor has decided to offer services in a manner that may impact religious belief, raises no inference of discrimination.”