In August 2021, the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti, with little ostensible political opposition, passed and approved an ordinance that would “require COVID-19 vaccination for all current and future city employees” with limited exceptions for those granted medical or religious exemptions.
The stated rationale was that “COVID-19 continues to pose a significant public health risk. … Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent transmission and limit COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths. … Unvaccinated employees are at a greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 within the workplace, and risk transmission to the public that depends on City services.”
“The City’s goal,” according to the ordinance, “is to have a vaccinated workforce.”
Around the time of the passage of the ordinance, city leaders attempted to convey the importance of the measure. A few weeks prior to its passage, a press release found on the L.A. mayor’s website quoted Garcetti as saying, “[W]e’re committed to pursuing a full vaccine mandate.”
In the same press release, City Council President Nury Martinez is also quoted: “Angelenos have stayed inside for over a year to protect themselves and others. I think it’s safe to say that we’re getting tired of putting our lives on hold to protect people who don’t want to protect themselves and get vaccinated.”
However, a number of L.A. city employees and their families have come to see the ordinance as burdensome to people of faith, grossly unconstitutional, and scientifically unsound.
One group of such individuals, represented by the anti-mandate coalition Roll Call 4 Freedom, subsequently filed a lawsuit in March 2022, alleging that the rationale for the ordinance is flawed while its implementation is discriminatory and illegal.
Contrary to the rationale of the ordinance, the lawsuit asserts, Covid’s omicron variant infects both the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike with neither vaccines nor even masks, for that matter, capable of doing much to halt infection or transmission. Yet, the lawsuit points out, only unvaccinated employees must regularly take the time to arrange, submit to, and sometimes pay for testing, and then use their sick days to take time off from work if they are found to have an asymptomatic infection.
Given that many of those employees who remain unvaccinated for Covid are unvaccinated largely due to religious objections to the use of embryonic cell lines in the initial development of the vaccines, this places an undue burden on people of faith, according to the lawsuit.
Furthermore, according to the lawsuit, even if the vaccines did offer protection against Covid infection and transmission, the procedures currently in place for requesting a religious exemption would still run afoul of the Supreme Court.
At present, according to a document regarding exemption procedures issued on September 17, 2021, and found on the City of Los Angeles Personnel Department website, employees seeking a religious exemption are told to submit two forms: a “Request for Religious Exemption Form” and a “Religious Accommodation Certification Form.” The forms would then be assessed by designated personnel within an employee’s department at their place of business, as well as the city’s Personnel Department’s Covid-19 Exemption/Deferment Unit.
The first form asks employees to explain how their religious beliefs conflict with the city’s vaccine requirement, as well as how long they’ve held those beliefs.
The second form, which is supposed to be completed by a religious leader, religious scholar, or person familiar with the employee’s religious beliefs, asks them to certify that the employee is adherent to said religious beliefs before questioning the certifier regarding if and why the employee’s belief system requires adherents to abstain from receiving the Covid-19 vaccine.
These types of questions, as well as the overall procedure, however, according to Roll Call 4 Freedom’s lawyers, are illegal. The questions suggest an employee’s objection to Covid vaccination must be based on a formal religious doctrine, and then, with little guidance, grants excessive discretion to low-level bureaucrats to evaluate an employee’s sincerity and the theological validity of their arguments.
Ultimately, according to the lawsuit, “The purpose of the religious exemption and testing scheme is not to provide for exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs but to force employees holding such beliefs to abandon them or to forfeit employment with the City in an effort to move toward a fully vaccinated workforce.”
Through their lawsuit, Roll Call 4 Freedom is requesting that the city of Los Angeles be enjoined from treating vaccinated employees and those with religious exemptions differently, from requiring employees to demonstrate their opposition to Covid vaccination is central to their faith, and from using non-uniform processes in approving or denying religious exemptions. The group also seeks to ensure that mandated testing for Covid is free, arranged by the city, and required no more than once per week.
When contacted via email for comment on Roll Call 4 Freedom’s case, Tristan G. Pelayes, an attorney for the organization, stated that a hearing is set for July 28 and that he is confident the case will be successful based on “the religious aspect of the case and how exemptions are determined and approved.”
You can read Roll Call 4 Freedom’s lawsuit below: