Oakland City Hall. Credit: Pete Rosos

A group of former Oakland employees filed a lawsuit in January against the city, accusing it of religious discrimination by mandating that city workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.

There have been thousands of lawsuits brought by employees against state and local government vaccine mandates across the nation since the start of the pandemic, according to Jackson Lewis, a law firm tracking this kind of litigation. 

U.S. courts have said for well over 100 years that the government should have broad powers to protect public health during pandemics and other emergencies, including through measures like vaccine mandates. Previous pandemics were successfully limited and millions of lives saved through mass vaccination campaigns, including against smallpox and polio.

Over 1 million Americans have died from COVID since the beginning of the pandemic. The vaccines, rolled out beginning in December 2020, have helped to prevent an additional 3 million deaths and millions more hospitalizations, according to one recent study.

The two dozen ex-city employees suing Oakland say in their lawsuit that their interpretation of the Christian Bible forbids them from taking the COVID-19 vaccine for several reasons. 

They claim that the three types of COVID vaccines currently available were “developed and produced from, tested with, researched on, or otherwise connected with fetal cell lines from aborted babies.” Their religious beliefs against abortion prohibit them from taking any medicine that would be “cooperating with and/or complicit in abortion.”

The vaccines were tested on fetal cell lines isolated in labs decades ago, a process that’s common in the development and testing of many drugs, including over-the-counter medicines like Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Tums, Benadryl, and more. Some employers who grant religious exemptions to people opposed to abortion require the employee to swear that they do not take any of these other drugs because of their religious beliefs.

The former employees also claim that the vaccines are a form of “gene therapy,” and that taking such a medicine is “literally assuming the position of God,” which is forbidden under their beliefs.

According to the CDC, the vaccines do not change or alter a person’s DNA in any way.

The city didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit and its vaccine mandate. The Oakland City Council is scheduled to discuss the matter in a closed session meeting tomorrow.

When Oakland issued its vaccine mandate policy for city employees in August 2021, it required workers to disclose their vaccination status by Oct. 15 and to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 21. Employees had the option to apply for an exemption due to either a medical condition that made vaccination risky, or a sincerely held religious belief that prohibits them from receiving the vaccine. Those who didn’t get vaccinated or successfully apply for an exemption were separated from the city.

According to the lawsuit, all 24 of the former city employees say they asked for a religious exemption but Oakland declined their requests because they would have constituted an “undue hardship,” meaning it would have been too expensive and impractical to allow them. They contend that it wouldn’t have been difficult for Oakland to make accommodations.

Almost half of the former city employees worked for the police department. Nine were police officers and two were civilian OPD employees. The rest worked for various departments like public works, planning and building, and the city administration.

A religious group filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of four former San Francisco employees against that city’s vaccine mandate last year. The lawsuit, along with others, is ongoing.

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham was a freelance investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian and was a staff writer for the East Bay Express. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017. He is also the co-author of The Riders Come Out at Night, a book examining the Oakland Police Department's history of corruption and reform.