One of the first Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines is administered in New York City on Monday. Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 14 (UPI) -- In a case that could have implications for the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, an employee has filed a complaint against the University of Virginia Health System for refusing to exempt him from getting a flu shot that he believes would "defile the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit."
The man says his Christian beliefs require him to refrain from accepting vaccines made from fetal cell lines derived from an abortion or made by companies that profit from selling other vaccines made from those cell lines. However, his requests for an accommodation were denied and he was told he could be fired if he didn't get the flu vaccination.
"I have a sincerely held religious belief in the sanctity of innocent human life, prebirth, to birth, to natural death," the employee wrote in his exemption request. "I cannot participate in or benefit from abortion, which is murder according to the Bible. All humans -- born and unborn -- are made in the image of God."
With the help of Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based nonprofit, the worker filed a complaint in November with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that his religious liberty rights have been violated.
Liberty Counsel will assess its next steps after it gets a response from the EEOC, which will investigate the complaint, said Richard Mast, the organization's senior litigation counsel.
Liberty Counsel wouldn't identify the employee or release the complaint, which is not a public record. He is still employed at UVA Health and had not been suspended as of Friday, Mast said.
A spokesman said UVA Health does not comment on pending legal matters.
With pharmaceutical companies completing development of COVID-19 vaccines, more disputes between workers and their employers over inoculation requirements are expected.
"A great majority of the people who have contacted Liberty Counsel regarding mandatory flu vaccination orders have expressed concern that they will also be ordered to accept a COVID vaccination," Mast said in an email to UPI. "Liberty Counsel has also been contacted by a number of people concerned solely about the coming COVID vaccine and potential mandates."
On Monday, a New York nurse became one of the first people in the United States to receive the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. About 184,275 vials of the vaccine were expected to be distributed among all 50 states on Monday.
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved emergency use authorization of the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted Saturday to recommend the vaccine as appropriate for people 16 and older, and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield accepted the recommendation.
Other vaccines also are being developed under Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership working to produce and deliver millions of doses to combat coronavirus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said between 75 percent and 80 percent of people need to be vaccinated in order to get "a real umbrella of protection" over the United States.
Connection to abortion
The use of fetal cell lines from two elective abortions, one in 1973 and the other in 1985, in connection with some COVID-19 vaccines has raised ethical concerns for some.
A report by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List, says abortion-derived cell lines are not used in the production of the majority of the leading Operation Warp Speed vaccines. Among the vaccines described as "ethically uncontroversial" are the ones produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which also has applied for emergency use authorization.
The cell lines, though, were used in laboratory testing of some of the vaccine candidates or their use in testing could not be determined, the report says.
In a Nov. 20 memo, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said there appears to be confusion in the media about the permissibility of using the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and that "some are asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines then it is immoral to be vaccinated with them."
"This is an inaccurate portrayal of Catholic moral teaching," says the memo, which was written by the USCCB chairmen for the committees on doctrine and on anti-abortion activities.
The memo, which was sent to all bishops and posted on the conference website, says the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines did not involve the use of cell lines that originated from the body of an aborted baby "at any level of design, development or production."
"They are not completely free from any connection to abortion, however, as both Pfizer and Moderna made use of a tainted cell line for one of the confirmatory lab tests of their products," the memo says. "There is thus a connection, but it is relatively remote."
According to the memo, taking tissue from an aborted child for creating cell lines is immoral but there are distinctions in the level of responsibility between those who design and produce a vaccine and those who receive the vaccine. For a recipient, "it is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health," the memo says.
The memo points out that the church's Pontifical Academy for Life has called for "appropriate expressions of protest" against the vaccines' origins, as well as for vigorous efforts to promote the creation of alternatives.
Jeff Barrows, a physician and senior vice president of bioethics and public policy at the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, said the CMDA also encourages people to advocate for ethical vaccines. He said his organization would like a vaccine that has "absolutely no association" with any abortion-derived fetal cell line, but the candidates that are close to getting approval all have some connection to it.
"In the absence of an ethically pure vaccine, CMDA is advocating that everyone considers taking even one of these because the association with the fetal cell line is so remote and the evil of the abortion is so remote that the good that will be achieved by getting the vaccine will far outweigh any evil that is associated with the abortion," Barrows said.
Some CMDA members will still refuse to take a vaccine that has a connection to the cell lines, despite their medical background, which is their right, he said.
"We just hope that they're very careful in not getting any type of illness themselves and passing it on to others, but we certainly do respect the individual right to refuse to get the vaccine," Barrows said.
'Harm to conscience'
In the case of the UVA Health employee, he was told to comply with the flu vaccination mandate or face disciplinary action, which could include suspension and termination, according to a Liberty Counsel news release.
The worker made several written requests for a religious accommodation. In one of them, he said that the mandated vaccine "is the equivalent of a prohibited 'unclean food' that causes harm to my conscience."
"Vaccines to me are analogous to what non-kosher food is to orthodox Jews, and no one requires anyone in the United States to consume a substance contrary to their faith," the employee said.
He also quoted 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 from the Bible:
"Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are."
The accommodation requests were denied and one email from Immunize UVA said, "Stating that you are a Christian and citing biblical verses that do not address vaccinations is not sufficient basis for granting an exemption from the vaccine requirement. Christian philosophy does not have absolute rules that must be followed regarding vaccinations."
In an Oct. 22 letter to UVA Health's attorney, Mast wrote that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation for an employee's sincerely held religious beliefs if doing so does not pose an undue hardship on the employer. By declining to grant the accommodation, UVA is discriminating against the employee on the basis of religion, he said.
Mast said the employee is willing to wear a face covering to help prevent the spread of influenza, which he does to help stop COVID-19 from spreading.
"After all, if face coverings or masks are effective in helping prevent the spread of COVID, then surely, they are effective in helping prevent the spread of influenza," the letter says. "Moreover, a percentage of UVA employees who accept the flu shot become symptomatic with influenza, despite having received the vaccine."
In addition, the letter says that numerous workers who weren't able to take the flu vaccine have been allowed to wear masks instead.
Mast cites two recent EEOC lawsuits that resulted in settlements on behalf of workers who refused vaccination because of their religious beliefs.
Ozaukee County, Wis., paid $18,000 in 2019 to a former certified nursing assistant who worked at one of its care centers and changed its policy to no longer require that an employee submit a letter from a clergy member to get a faith-based exemption from the flu vaccination. The employee could not provide a letter because she had no affiliation with a church or organized religion and got the shot after being told she would be fired if she didn't.
In 2018, Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., agreed to pay $89,000 to three employees who wouldn't get flu shots.