mayo clinic
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A U.S. appeals court on Friday revived a lawsuit accusing the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota of illegally firing five employees who refused on religious grounds to receive the COVID-19 vaccine or be regularly tested for the virus.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the judge who tossed out the consolidated lawsuits last year wrongly ruled that the workers had not connected their objections to Mayo's COVID-19 policies with sincere Christian religious beliefs.

Three of the workers were fired for refusing the vaccine and two others who received religious exemptions were terminated for declining weekly COVID-19 testing.

They claimed that their refusal stemmed from the belief that their bodies are temples and from their objections to the use of fetal cells in the production of vaccines."The district court erred by emphasizing that many Christians elect to receive the vaccine," U.S. Circuit Judge Duane Benton wrote. "Beliefs do not have to be uniform across all members of a religion or acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others."

The opinion by Benton, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush, was joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Ralph Erickson and Jonathan Kobes, appointees of Republican former President Donald Trump.

The Mayo Clinic and lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Like many employers, particularly in the healthcare industry, Mayo in 2021 adopted a policy requiring all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Workers who received exemptions were required to take weekly COVID-19 tests.

The plaintiffs - two nurses, a paramedic, a CT technician and the supervisor of a bacteriology lab - all sought religious exemptions. Three were denied and two were approved, but those workers declined to undergo testing, saying they believed it was unnecessary and violated the sanctity of their bodies.

The workers were fired and in 2022 filed separate lawsuits in Minneapolis federal court accusing Mayo of religious discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and a Minnesota anti-discrimination law.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, an appointee of Democratic former President Bill Clinton, dismissed the claims in August 2023.

He said the plaintiffs had only broadly stated their religious beliefs and had not shown that vaccines and testing violated them. The plaintiffs appealed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII, filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the 8th Circuit to revive claims by two of the workers, Kenneth Ringhofer and Shelly Kiel.

The commission said Tunheim applied too high of a bar in finding that the plaintiffs' refusal of the vaccine was more personal or political than religious."There may sometimes be overlap between a religious and political view, but that does not necessarily place the belief outside the scope of Title VII's religion protections," the commission said.

The 8th Circuit on Friday agreed with respect to all five plaintiffs.

"The district court did not consider the complaints as a whole, instead focusing on specific parts of the complaints to rule the anti-vaccine beliefs 'personal' or 'medical," Benton wrote.