Covid vs. Religious Freedom at UVA

by James A. Bacon

The University of Virginia has paid more than $1.8 million in legal fees fighting a lawsuit filed by UVA Health employees who were fired, despite religious objections, for refusing to take the Covid vaccine. And that’s just through November. Given the continuing litigation, billing has likely passed the $2 million mark.

Eleven former employees filed a lawsuit a year ago, claiming that the $3 billion-a-year-in-revenues health system arbitrarily declined to grant them religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate.

Hunton Andrews Kurth is the lead law firm for UVA, charging between $600 and $900 per hour for legal services and racking up $1.52 million in charges through November, according to documents the Jefferson Council has acquired through the Freedom of Information Act. Eckert Seamons has charged $240,000, and IslerDare $70,000.

Along with UVa’s academic division and the University of Virginia-Wise campus, UVA Health is one of three divisions of the University of Virginia. Like the other two, it is governed by the UVA Board of Visitors.

Some excerpts from the lawsuit, the amended version of which can be read here:

When UVA Health mandated that employees receive a COVID vaccine, it knew that it was legally required to accommodate religious beliefs. But it wanted to minimize accommodations, and it believed that most objections were false political beliefs from members of the political right. As a result, UVA Health has cycled through a series of blatantly unconstitutional and unlawful attempts to exclude religious employees from its workplace en masse. …

UVA Health’s Human Resources department drew up a (short) list of churches, and decided to exempt members of those churches from the vaccine requirement “automatically,” while denying exemptions to employees who belong to any other church or religious body—without concern for the individual employees’ beliefs about religion and vaccines.

Plaintiff J. Dwayne Phillips, for instance, told UVA Health that he believed that “the Holy Spirit of God has told me that I should not receive this vaccine”—but UVA Health responded, with rather shocking candor, that it thought “God speaking to him” did not qualify as “religious belief.”

Similarly, Plaintiff Mark Ehrlich’s Seventh-Day Adventist faith has caused him to refrain for more than 25 years from eating animal products, taking pain relievers, antihistamines, or cold medicines, and receiving certain vaccines—but UVA Health dismissed his objection to the COVID vaccine as not “a bona fide sincerely held religious belief,” but rather a secular concern “veiled in religious language.”

UVA Health also arrogated to itself the right to judge its employees’ religious beliefs as incorrect, and therefore not worthy of consideration. It did this especially to employees who objected to COVID vaccines on the (accurate) grounds that all available versions of COVID vaccine had been developed or tested using cell lines that originated from aborted fetuses. When employees like Mr. Phillips objected on that basis, UVA Health rejected their exemption requests on the ground that their religious beliefs are simply wrong, and that the vaccines’ connection with abortion is too remote to trigger any moral concern.

Based on these policies and practices, in late 2021 UVA Health denied exemption requests en masse, in brief boilerplate rejection statements, and without individual consideration. The result was that dozens or even hundreds of UVA Health employees were fired simply because UVA Health thought they went to the wrong church or held wrong religious beliefs. Countless more job applicants were rejected for the same reasons—UVA Health denied them religious exemptions and therefore employment, sometimes even after it had offered them a job.

What would UVA founder Thomas Jefferson say? Perhaps something like this:

The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others.

Oh, he did say that — in his 1777 bill to establish religious liberty!

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walter smith
walter smith
5 months ago

This was another bad failure by the BOV. It is in the BOV manual to protect the traditions of Jefferson (and the honor system!). If Jefferson wanted to be remembered for founding UVA, for authoring the Declaration and for writing the Virginia Statute for religious freedom, is it possible he would have thought religious liberty important?
I have been unable to get a straight answer from UVA as to the student exemption requests. The first form was patently, blatantly unConstitutional, much less Jeffersonianly (is that a word?) wrong.
There are plenty of other things to argue about with UVA’s Covid policy, but this one aspect should have gotten SOME pushback from what everybody else did.
Interestingly, UVA Health adopted a new policy of requiring all employees to be vaccinated as of July 1, 2019. This appeared to come down from the CDC (you know, a “recommendation” that all the subject medical facilities then adopt!) with a promise of better health outcomes. I have not seen any science supporting better health outcomes from this policy, just the assertion. I honestly believe it was a policy designed to flush out religious employees through attrition (like in the professoriate with mandated DEI statements). Those pesky religious employees might object to participating in abortions or transgender procedures or even privately believe homosexuality is wrong or that the mandated DEI courses are anti-Biblical.
Somehow, prior to the latest Tulip bulb mania of Covid, everything in America worked well without any one of us knowing the vaccine status of those all around us, nor did we care! That was a better America. I’d like it back.

keith
keith
5 months ago

he is greedy batard

HooDaMan
HooDaMan
5 months ago

Walter. You have made good points in the past but I would ask you to reflect on several of your assertions that I found mean spirited and ungrounded. The purging of religious faculty/staff? That was UVa’s motive in a pandemic? Enough. This type of vitriol undermines any rational arguments people have against social justice and social engineering dominating higher Ed curriculum.

walter smith
walter smith
5 months ago
Reply to  HooDaMan

Why do you think it was “mean spirited” and “unfounded?”
I listened to many, many people during the Covid mania saying “F your religious beliefs.” “Too bad.”
There was great hostility to people who did not want to conform. GREAT hostility.
Meanwhile, looking at everything, in toto, I discovered the “new” policy implemented as of July 1, 2019. I saw the assertion of better health outcomes, but I have seen no actual “science” that requiring all employees be vaccinated would lead to better health outcomes.
OK, now think about the new policy, who would be most likely to be negatively affected by the new policy? Why was it necessary? I am just drawing what I think is the most obvious conclusion, particularly since prior to the outrageous Covid fear instilled everywhere, NO ONE cared about anyone else’s vaccine status.

walter smith
walter smith
5 months ago
Reply to  walter smith

“ungrounded”!

Peter LeQuire College '65
Peter LeQuire College '65
5 months ago
Reply to  HooDaMan

I don’t know whether “religious faculty/staff” has been or is being “purged”. I do know that in the past several years, I have communicated with two faculty members: with one, about punishment of students because their speech “offended” someone; with the other, who published a book that was a nice analysis of non-“woke” educational philosophy. Neither is still on the faculty at the University. Their not being on faculty may not have resulted for these reasons, but if they were, the may have been the only faculty (or staff) purged for their conscientious deviation from the current acceptable narrative.

(And yes, I do understand these could simply be coincidental, and for one of hundreds of possible reasons for changing jobs in the academic world.)

Peter LeQuire College '65
Peter LeQuire College '65
5 months ago

Correction: “…if they were, they may not have been the only…”

The Bootstrap Kid
The Bootstrap Kid
5 months ago

There is no place for religious freedom in the theology of the woke left.