Legal Spotlight: Vaccine Litigation Continues As a Matter of Religious Workplace Accommodation

Author: Gregg Mosson | | Categories: Attorney , COVID-19 , Employment Law , Legal Consultation , Towson Law Firm

Family Law Lawyer Maryland

In Shigley v. Tydings & Rosenberg, LLP, a Maryland federal court dismissed a claim for failure to accommodate a religious objection to COVID-19 vaccination in Maryland, because the legal secretary involved failure to explain specifically how her objection to vaccination related to her sincerely held religious beliefs.  Mem. Op., Civ. No. JKB-23-02717, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47832 (D. Md. Mar. 18, 2024).

The Baltimore-based law firm involved in the dispute instituted a COVID-19 vaccination policy in 2021 as staff returned to the office, and denied Ms. Shigley's request to work in the office masked, rather than vaccinated, or at home, or be accommodated in some other way.  The firm fired her on Sept. 1, 2021.  Mem. Op. *1-*4.

The Maryland federal court, in considering her claim, never reached an evaluation of the employer's conduct under a motion to dismiss standard of review.  Rather, the court found Ms. Shigley failed to allege a bona fide religion-based objection to vaccination.  As a result, she had no right to refuse to be vaccinated or be accommodated in the first place, if not based on religion, because someone's personal morality alone does not suffice, for instance.  Mem. Op. *4-*9. 

What Is A Religious Accommodation Request?

As the Court recounts "[u]nder Title VII, employers are under a duty to 'make reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship.'" Mem. Op. *6-*7 (citing EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131, 141 (4th Cir. 2017)).

"To establish that an employer violated this duty, a plaintiff must show that: (1) she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) she informed her employer of this belief; and (3) she was disciplined for failure to comply with the job requirement." Id.

A bona fide religious belief under the first element above can be broken down to two components: (a) "sincerely held" and (b) "religious in nature."  Mem. Op. *7 (citing Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333, 339, 90 S. Ct. 1792, 26 L. Ed. 2d 308 (1970)).

The claim here was found lacking because the vaccination objection was not linked to religion.

Discussion of Shigley:

Here, the legal secretary pled that she was religious, generally speaking, and objected to use of fetal cell tissues in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Yet according to the court's decision, she did not link how an objection to abortion and the related use of fetal cell tissues in scientific vaccine development here related to her sincere (but vaguely framed) religious beliefs.  Mem. Op. *8-*9.

For instance, she stated: "Conscientious religious individuals, including Mrs. Shigley are opposed to the use of such cell lines, especially in light of the fact that alternate cell lines are available, and further use of the aborted fetal tissue cell lines are seen as using the fruits of immoral actions."  Mem. Op. *8-*9.

This vaguely stated objection did not suffice.  Her claim would have been stronger if more specific, including stating her specific religion or if more unique, providing a express description of it.  Likewise, how vaccination relates to her religious belief is a question that must be explained.  Mem. Op. *8-12.

In a New Jersey case cited favorably by the Maryland federal court, at page nine, one police officer who objected to being vaccinated claimed that his Christian religion required a sanctity of the body.  The COVID-19 vaccine violates it through mRNA technology, he alleged, because it changes the "fingerprint of God."  This was held as sufficient.  See Aliano v. Twp. of Maplewood, Civil Action No. 22-cv-5598, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 116652, at *18-22 (D. N.J. July 7, 2023).

Another police officer in Aliano objected to the same use of fetal cell tissue in the development of the vaccine as here.  However, the officer explained it specifically and better, based on his Catholic religious upbringing and beliefs, which prohibit abortion, and providing some scriptural discussion of why.  Id.


While Ms. Shigley's religious-accommodation claim was dismissed, the Court provided her with leave to amend this claim and refile it with greater clarity. 

As a result, Ms. Shigley will have a chance to refile her claim, with the delay to date and revisory work required.

The takeaway here is twofold:

(1) Be specific in alleging one's religious rights at Court; and

(2) A religious objection must relate to a specifically, sincerely, and subjectively held religious belief.  It cannot be moral, alone.


          Gregg H. Mosson, Esq.

          Mosson Law, LLC

ABOUT: Our founder and experienced attorney, Mr. Mosson, focuses on representing employees in claims of illegal discrimination, illegal retaliation, disability rights violations, FMLA interference, wrongful terminations, and when seeking owed wages. He also serves people seeking disability benefits from Social Security. His experience and knowledge in these areas of the law are vast and helpful to the clients he represents.  For more details, visit the Web site at To contact us, you can click here or call 443-226-0601.