Ten Burbank Unified School District employees are suing BUSD, seeking damages based on claims that they faced religious discrimination, harassment and retaliation from the district when they refused to be vaccinated from COVID-19.
The lawsuit states that each employee was denied an exemption request from the district’s COVID-19 vaccination policy, which went into effect September 2021. All plaintiffs claim that they applied for “a reasonable accommodation to their sincerely held religious beliefs and/or medical condition,” the lawsuit complaint states.
Plaintiffs are currently undergoing depositions in the suit filed February 2023, and a trial date is set for July 15.
The complaint details the denial from BUSD staff, stating that the district did not dispute the sincerity of the employee’s religious beliefs, but insisted it could not identify any reasonable accommodations that would permit each employee to continue safely working on BUSD sites during the pandemic.
Alternatively, the district offered each employee an unpaid leave of absence, stating that “there are no available accommodations that would satisfy the health and safety protection of vaccinations, so as to promote a safe indoor environment for all staff and students against potential exposure to COVID-19,” according to the complaint.
“Their job is to help kids learn and they’re told they can’t do it because they’re standing strong to their religious convictions,” said Daniel Watkins, attorney for the plaintiffs.
Plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages for loss of work and what they saw was religious discrimination from the district.
And although harassment is brought up in the suit, Watkins told the Leader that his office may not pursue the harassment claim in court but will seek compensation for the retaliation claim.
“The retaliation claim is predicated on the idea that they exercised the legal right to object to the vaccine requirement, and then they were terminated or effectively put out on unpaid leave,” Watkins told the Leader.
BUSD has long maintained that its COVID-19 policy falls in line with the most up to date directives from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health.
The Leader reached out to the district for comment on the matter, but did not receive a response in time for its publishing deadline on Jan. 19.
The district’s vaccination policy was established in September 2021, when Burbank students returned to schools. It lays out the circumstances required for exemptions and accommodations related to COVID-19 vaccines.
“Unvaccinated employees assigned to work on campus will be excluded from campus and deemed absent without leave, unless a district-authorized exemption or other accommodation has been obtained by an employee,” the policy states.
The district did not approve any such exemptions.
Much of the plaintiffs’ suit centers around allegations that BUSD policy maintains unscientific assumptions about the vaccine’s efficacy and safety.
The complaint states that BUSD’s claims that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and highly effective is untrue, and not supported by scientific data.
“It doesn’t do what it’s touted to do, and it’s not effective. And it didn’t stop transmission. Everybody on the planet accepts that now in the scientific community. They knew it even as far back as before the vaccine came out,” said Watkins.
The COVID-19 vaccine and more recent iterations of the immunization has been heavily studied and national and global health organizations associated it with durable protection against transmission, according to the National Institutes of Health. The county yields to the FDA’s authority in certifying the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
The case also argues against how safe the vaccine is for individuals. Watkins makes the claim that expert witnesses will testify that the COVID-19 differs from other vaccines in how safe it is for individuals.
“People who are taking the vaccine are having cardiac problems and pulmonary problems, among other issues,” said Watkins, adding that he will provide experts to expound on that claim in court.
The COVID-19 vaccine has been routinely proven safe and effective in large, multiphase clinical trials and peer-reviewed independent studies to demonstrate that it meets internationally agreed benchmarks for safety and efficacy, according to the World Health Organization.
First published in the January 20 print issue of the Burbank Leader.