Saturday, February 10, 2024

Expressed Hostility to Religious Belief of Vaccine Exemption Applicant Did Not Violate 1st Amendment

 In Hancock v. Oregon Health and Science University, (D OR, Feb. 8, 2024), an Oregon federal district court dismissed without prejudice a claim by a lecturer at the University that her 1st Amendment rights were violated in the process of denying her claim of a religious exemption from the University's Covid vaccine mandate.  Plaintiff claimed that various of the defendants:

... expressed overt hostility to the religious beliefs of Plaintiff by declaring Plaintiff's religious beliefs 'personal moral choices and/or conscientious objection rather than a tenet of a religious faith,' merely her 'right to have religious freedom or conscientiously object to the vaccine' rather than a sincerely held religious belief and 'concerns over vaccine safety or content' not a sincerely held religious belief but rather a 'religious argument' and 'inconsistent with proven facts.'

The court held that mere expression of hostility toward plaintiff's religious beliefs does not create tangible harm that can be remedied, and so plaintiff lacks standing. It went on to hold that even if plaintiff had standing, she did not adequately allege that defendants substantially burdened her religious beliefs. The court said in part:

At best, the Court identifies only two allegations that could plausibly be related to coercion: (1) "Defendant OHSU's request for additional information was meant to belittle and shame Plaintiff for her religious beliefs and convince her she did not possess the religious beliefs she possessed"; and (2) "Board Defendant's [sic] placed pressure on Plaintiff to conform to the prevailing approved religion by proclaiming which religious beliefs were worthy of religious exceptions and which were not."...

... [N]either allegation addresses what effect this alleged pressure had on plaintiff.

Finally, the court concluded that defendants are entitled to qualified immunity.