Court Reopens Case Against Mayo Clinic’s Covid Vaccine Policy

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In a significant win for religious freedom and a major setback for Covid vaccine proponents, a U.S. appeals court has revived a lawsuit alleging the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, discriminated against workers opposing strict Covid-19 vaccine mandates on religious grounds.

The court’s decision enables numerous employees to seek damages for Mayo’s alleged violation of equal employment laws, partly due to a federal agency under the vaccine-supporting Biden administration that has advocated for Covid shot mandates in workplaces.

Officials with the health system told the National Desk that Mayo Clinic will “vigorously” defend itself.

‘Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs’

On Friday, the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which had urged the court to reconsider the claims of former Mayo employees. Shelly Kiel and Kenneth Ringhofer were among five medical staffers who filed the lawsuit after being terminated in 2022. They contend the hospital’s mandate requiring employees to either get the vaccine or undergo regular Covid testing infringed on their religious rights and bodily sanctity.

“Plaintiffs identify as Christians and allege they refused the vaccine based on their sincerely held religious beliefs,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint alleges the healthcare provider, like many others with vaccine mandates, violated the employees’ rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Minnesota’s anti-discrimination law, both of which are meant to protect employees and job applicants from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

But U.S. District Judge John Tunheim dismissed the complaint, stating the fired employees had not demonstrated that the Covid vaccine and testing requirements specifically violated their rights. The judge also ruled that two of the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies under Title VII.

In overturning the decision, the appellate court found that Tunheim, appointed to the Minnesota federal court by President Bill Clinton, incorrectly interpreted state and federal law, including the determination that the plaintiffs failed to plead religious beliefs conflicting with Mayo’s Covid-19 policies.

Kiel, for instance, argued that her “religious beliefs prevent her from putting into her body the Covid-19 vaccines … because they were all produced with or tested with cells from aborted human babies. Receiving the vaccine would make her a participant in the abortion that killed the unborn baby.” Pfizer and Moderna did use fetal tissue from abortions in the early development of the vaccines, though the pharmaceutical companies assert the abortions occurred decades ago and the cells used are generations removed.

Ringhofer’s complaint states that “his body is a Temple to the Holy Spirit and [he] is strongly against abortion. Plaintiff Ringhofer believes the Vaccine Mandate violates his religious beliefs and conscience to take the Covid-19 vaccine because the vaccines were produced with or tested with fetal cell lines.” The other plaintiffs expressed similar objections.

The appeals court found that the district judge did not “consider the complaint as a whole.”

“As EEOC Guidance says, ‘overlap between a religious and political view does not place it outside the scope of Title VII’s religious protections, as long as the view is part of a comprehensive religious belief system,” the appeals court ruling states. Even though Mayo argued that many Christians chose to get the vaccine, that doesn’t invalidate the plaintiffs’ beliefs.

In its statement, Mayo Clinic said it implemented its vaccination program to protect the health and safety of staff, patients, and communities.

“The program included an exemption to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs, and Mayo granted the majority of requests for religious exemptions,” the hospital system, with some 76,000 employees, stated. The Court of Appeals did not criticize Mayo’s vaccination program or employment actions; rather, the court simply ruled that the plaintiffs might continue their legal claims.”

‘Engaging in Their Own Lawfare’

The ruling allows more than 100 Mayo Clinic workers and other affected employees to seek monetary damages in U.S. District Court, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys. Depending on the lawsuit’s outcome, untold numbers of fired employees forced to choose between their jobs and their conscience might seek legal relief, attorneys said.

“We are elated at the 8th Circuit’s decision to follow clearly-established law relating to Title VII (federal law) and the Minnesota Human Rights Act,” Greg Erickson, an attorney with Minneapolis-based Mohrman, Kaardal & Erickson P.A., said in a statement. “We greatly appreciate the support of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in defending our clients’ religious liberties by participating in this successful appeal.”

Erick Kaardal, another attorney for the plaintiffs, claimed that employers mandating the Covid vaccine under penalty were “engaging in their own lawfare against religious-objecting employees.” The discrimination, he said, was so severe in the Mayo Clinic case that even the far-left Biden administration’s EEOC had to intervene to correct the district court’s erroneous dismissal.

President Joe Biden in September 2021 announced a federal rule mandating that employers with 100 or more employees require workers to get the vaccine or be tested weekly for the virus. The U.S. Supreme Court in January 2022 blocked the administration from enforcing the rule while allowing health care organizations that receive federal health insurance payments to mandate the vaccine. Approximately 17 million health care workers were affected, ABC News reported. The high court also ordered a federal district court in Texas to dismiss its preliminary injunction against the vaccine mandate for federal employees.

However, the policies must comply with civil rights protections, including religious objections.

As Kaardal noted, physicians often were able to forgo the vaccine while nursing and support staff had to face the consequences.

“You think about these politically correct employers targeting religious objectors; it’s really sad,” Kaardal said Monday afternoon on the “Simon Conway Show” on NewsRadio 1040 WHO in Des Moines. “Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, all people of faith should be able to raise religious objections in the workplace. There could have been accommodations worked out.”

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