POMONA – More than 20 terminated Hacienda La Puente Unified School District employees who sued the district after objecting to the district’s employee coronavirus vaccination mandate on religious grounds will have to shore up their lawsuit for it to proceed on all of its causes of action, a judge says in a tentative ruling.
The plaintiffs’ Pomona Superior Court lawsuit alleges religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation. They seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the amended suit originally brought March 3.
On Friday, Pomona Superior Court Judge Salvatore Sirna issued a tentative ruling finding that the plaintiffs will have to provide more facts to support their religious discrimination and harassment claims, but that they had submitted enough details for now to back up their retaliation cause of action. The judge proposes to give the plaintiffs 20 days to file another amended complaint.
Sirna is scheduled to hear arguments on the district’s dismissal motion later Monday before issuing a final ruling.
District lawyers state in their court papers that all of the causes of action fail because the plaintiffs do not sufficiently establish a religious creed that falls within the protections of the state Fair Employment and Housing Act.
“Regardless, the fact is that virtually all religions commonly practiced in the United States do not mandate that their adherents avoid vaccination,” the HLPUSD lawyers argue in their court papers.
But according to the plaintiffs’ court papers, the sincerity of an employee’s stated religious belief is “usually not in dispute and is generally presumed or easily established” and “employers are not and should not be in the business of deciding whether a person holds religious beliefs for the proper reasons…”
Instead of following the law to approve the plaintiffs’ bids for religious exemptions and reasonable accommodations, the HLPUSD denied their requests and terminated them, the suit states.
The Board of Education in September 2021 approved a resolution requiring, in part, that all district employees report their COVID-19 vaccination status to human resources and that as of Oct. 16, 2021, employees would only be allowed on campus if they were fully vaccinated and submitted proof of being so.
The resolution allowed exemptions for medical and religious reasons with the provision those exempted tested weekly.
The school board listed 18 “misleading and/or exaggerated factors to support the resolution mandating that its employees be vaccinated to safely work within the district,” signaling the board’s “contempt for employees who would seek religious exemptions to the mandate,” the suit states.
Two of those examples included the board’s finding that COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States have proven safe and highly effective at curbing the spread of the coronavirus as well as another conclusion that the coronavirus continues to pose a serious health risk, especially to individuals who are not fully vaccinated — neither of which are supported by scientific data, the suit states.
The plaintiffs submitted requests for religious accommodation, maintaining that accepting or receiving any of the three currently available COVID-19 vaccines would be a violation of their sincerely held religious beliefs, in part because all of the vaccines are developed and produced from aborted fetal cell lines, the suit states.
“Plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs compel them to abstain from accepting or injecting any of these products into their bodies, regardless of the perceived benefits or rationales,” according to the complaint.
Each plaintiff received a denial letter from the HLPUSD that state in part, “The purpose of this correspondence is to inform you that the district has considered your request and supporting materials and hereby denies your request for exemption,” the suit states.
The HLPUSD further stated in its denial letters that accommodations could not be provided to the plaintiffs due to the undue hardship presented by the requests, but the district “completely fails to provide factual evidence to support a claim of undue hardship,” the suit states.
“Further evidence of HLPUSD’s discrimination with these denials is present in HLPUSD’s turning a blind eye to the current state of the science, which clearly indicates that vaccinated individuals spread COVID-19 just as unvaccinated individuals,” the suit states.
The district’s “malicious and reckless actions are causing intense undue stress for its former employees, who were forced to choose between keeping their jobs, which they loved, and honoring their most deeply held religious beliefs about life, purpose and death,” the suit states.
The plaintiffs in the suit are Thuy Monge, Jamie Askus, Alice Acevedo, Ida Aguayo, Jose Araiza, Marisol Arevalo, Diana Ayala, Maechelle Brown, Noemi Covarrubias, Desteny Flores, Elizabeth Hernandez, Heidi Holguin, Melissa Lomenzo, Vanessa Lozano, Dora Luna, Melissa Lucht, Romelia Mancillas, Benny Morales, Miranda Noriega, Melissa Ramon, Ashley Smith, Matthew Solorzano, Kerry Stavert-Wooten, Brittney Strand, Marysol Thomas and Sean Van Gundy.