A judge in Charlottesville has ruled in favor of a woman who claimed she was wrongfully fired by the University of Virginia Health System for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.
Kaycee McCoy was employed as a cytotechnologist at UVa from 2011 until 2021, when she was dismissed after requesting a religious exemption to vaccination.
Judge Claude Worrell cited the separation of church and state in his ruling, dated July 27.
“There is no constitutional right to a vaccine exemption,” Worrell wrote in his analysis of the case. “However, we need not consider the constitutionality of this exemptions because medical and religious exemptions have been written into the requirements for the Covid-19 vaccine.”
It is true that UVa Health provided religious and medical exemptions to its vaccine mandate issued in August 2021.
Per that mandate, employees were required to be vaccinated by November of that year or face consequences.
“Anyone who remains unvaccinated on Nov. 1 will face disciplinary action, including the possibility of termination,” that statement from the university reads. “UVA Health will consider requests for exemptions to the vaccine policy for medical and religious reasons and continues to work to answer any questions team members may have about the vaccines.”
A list of exempted religions included Dutch Reformed congregations as well as “faith healing denominations” such as Faith Tabernacle, Church of the First Born, Faith Assembly, End Time Ministrie and Church of Christ, Scientist.
McCoy submitted her exemption to the university’s online system the day before the deadline in September of 2021. She provided the university with a written statement explaining her religious objections, along with a letter from the pastor of her church, vouching for the sincerity of her beliefs.
Religious exemption requests were reviewed by a committee composed of human resources personnel to determine the sincerity of the religious beliefs, according to court documents.
McCoy received an email after submitting, notifying her of the denial of her request. She responded to the email questioning the decision in early October 2021. Her status on the university’s online system regarding her vaccination tracking stood as “pending” during that time.
Another email was sent to McCoy from the university saying decisions were final and there would be no appeal process. McCoy was then suspended in November of that year after returning to work from vacation and was notified she’d be terminated in five days.
In his analysis of the case, the judge said UVa had acted in a an “arbitrary and capricious manner.”
“Plaintiff met the requirements necessary to show that she had sincerely held religious beliefs that allow her to seek an exception to the vaccine requirement,” Worrell wrote. “Further her application was sufficient on its face that it should not have been denied. The UVA policy allowed for religious exemptions and failed to grant one.”
UVa officials declined to comment to The Daily Progress. The attorneys representing McCoy did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
McCoy is not the only former UVa Health employee to challenge its vaccine policy.
UVa Health is also facing a possible class action lawsuit with roughly 400 claims of wrongful termination.
Founding Freedoms Law Center has joined together with other legal counsels on behalf of former UVa Health employees who were fired, according to Josh Hetzler, legal counsel for the center. The suit is looking to help those who were fired and stop UVa from “not accommodating people who have religious objections.”
“First and foremost to get people back to work who were fired due to religious objections,” Hetzler told The Daily Progress.
Hetzler said he is unsure how the case will proceed, however, after UVa issued a change to its vaccine policy earlier this year.
UVa Health will be ending its vaccine mandate effective Aug. 4, according to a statement released in June. The policy change will apply to “all UVa Health team members, inclusive of the Medical Center, UPG, School of Medicine, School of Nursing, Claude Moore Health System Library, UVa Community Health, and UVa Community Health Medical Group.”
“I’m not sure if a permanent injunction will be ordered because the UVa policy ends,” Hetzler said.
The university’s health system has started to send reinstatement letters to some employees, according to Hetzler. But not all offers have been equivalent to previous positions.
“They’re supposed to offer jobs back that are equivalent,” Hetzler said. “In a couple cases people have accepted, in other cases jobs aren’t equivalent, and some haven’t been offered a job back at all.”
Hetzler believes judges will have an opinion on initial motions in the next two weeks, he said.
“Hopefully UVa will settle matters, because we think we have a very strong case and we will win,” Hetzler said. “UVa will be wise to try to settle on some reasonable amount that our clients have lost.”