Wednesday, March 08, 2023

Minnesota Appeals Court Decides When Religious Reasons for Vaccine Refusal Were Proven

In three cases decided within days of each other, the Minnesota Court of Appeals wrestled with the question of whether employees' claims of religious objections to the COVID vaccine were credible.  At issue in each case was the former employee's entitlement to unemployment benefits.  If the religious claim was legitimate, vaccine refusal would not constitute disqualifying employment misconduct.

In Washa v. Actalent Scientific, LLC, (MN App, Feb. 22, 2023), the court reversed the decision of an unemployment law judge. It found that substantial evidence did not support the unemployment-law judge's finding that a medical lab technician's refusal was based on safety concerns rather than religious beliefs.  The technician had testified that he did not want to be defiled so that God could enter and he could avoid going to Hell.

In Quarnstrom v. Berkley Risk Administrators Company, LLC, (MN App., Feb. 22, 2023), the court remanded the case, finding that the unemployment-law judge had used the wrong standard in deciding whether an insurance adjustor's refusal was personal rather than religious. The court said in part:

The ULJ reasoned that Quarnstrom’s reasons for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine were not based on sincerely held religious beliefs because she did not cite to particular passages in the Bible, had not been instructed by a religious advisor to refuse the vaccine, and conceded that other members of her congregation could, consistent with their faith, choose to get a vaccine. But “the guarantee of free exercise is not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.”...

In McConnell v. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis(MN App, Feb. 24, 2023), the court in a 2-1 decision held that the record did not support the unemployment-law judge's conclusion that vaccine refusal by an FRB employee was based on secular, not religious, reasons.  The majority said in part:

Although McConnell testified to concerns regarding the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, she repeatedly tied those concerns back to her faith.... [S]he testified that, although she believes in some medical interventions, she “prayerfully consider[s] things.” The ULJ found McConnell’s testimony regarding safety concerns credible and rejected her testimony regarding her religious beliefs as not credible.... The ULJ offered no reason for crediting only part of McConnell’s testimony, and we can discern none.

Judge Segal dissented, saying in part:

I would conclude that, although it implicates constitutional rights, this appeal, like many others, turns on a credibility determination that is supported by the record. As such, I believe that precedent requires that we defer to the ULJ’s credibility determination.