A former Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney is suing her former boss after she was denied a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine and subsequently fired when she didn’t get vaccinated.
Rachel Spivack’s suit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia in mid-April, claims District Attorney Larry Krasner violated her First Amendment rights and the commonwealth’s Religious Freedom Protection Act, all while carving out exemptions for other employees, including those with serious medical conditions.
“They’re basically making a value judgment that religious objections are not important enough compared to their own secular reasons,” said Christina Martinez, one of Spivack’s attorneys.
The suit alleges Krasner reviewed and denied all religious exemption requests personally “solely on the basis of his hostility to religion.”
Spivack worked as a prosecutor for less than a year before being fired.
The DA’s office declined to speak on the pending litigation, but said it follows the law on religious exemption requests and all faiths receive evenhanded treatment.
The city was also named as a defendant. A spokesperson for the city declined to comment Monday.
“As public safety requires, we adhere to our high obligation to protect the health of DAO staff, their families and communities, and the general public from a damaging, sometimes fatal virus,” the office said in a statement.
As an independently elected official, Krasner’s vaccine mandate for his employees is separate from the mandate other city employees have to follow, which has faced enforcement delays due to union pushback. And while the city has not released what percent of religious exceptions it’s granted, union leaders have said they have not been difficult to obtain.
Spivack, an orthodox Jew, described a more tedious process. She began seeking a vaccine exemption on religious grounds a week into her new role, according to the complaint. She submitted a four-page letter from her rabbi, Yitzchok Chayempour, of Congregation Ohr Menachem Chabad in Great Neck, N.Y.
Chayempour wrote that Spivack was a member of the congregation and together they had discussed how Judaic law applied to her. Ultimately, they decided “natural immunity” and scripture made it so Spivack would not be able to get the vaccine, said Chayempour.
Spivack provided additional information to support her exemption request in December, explaining how she kept herself “to a higher level than standard kosher” — which includes a prohibition on consuming any dairy that wasn’t milked with Jewish supervision — and how her faith informed her medical care. Spivack explained she doesn’t take pain relievers or undergo general medical procedures during the Sabbath or holidays.
Spivack also said her faith had gotten her a tetanus shot exemption from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2018 when she was a student. Then, as in 2021, Spivack’s case for exemption centered on how these vaccines were manufactured and how Judaic law prohibited her from “injecting forbidden mixtures.”
Spivack’s attorney said her client continued to work in person while she awaited a response to her religious exemption request.
“It’s kind of ironic that now, when things were finally getting back to normal for the rest of the world, they’re taking the position that the same strategies that were sufficient for multiple months during the height of the pandemic are no longer suitable or acceptable,”
The DA’s office denied Spivack’s exemption request in March, writing the law allows it to deny exemptions based on religious beliefs if they would create an undue burden to the office. Waiving the mandate, they wrote in a letter, would create an undue burden for the office, as would accommodations such as testing.
“Weekly testing does not protect against interim contagion between tests and such testing is expensive, unreliable, and an administrative burden,” said the rejection, signed by Deputy Chief of Staff Cecilia Madden.
The letter added that masking didn’t offer as much protection as the vaccine and was hard to enforce. What’s more, the unvaccinated “have a dramatically higher likelihood of transmitting the disease to other employees,” and if one person got sick, read the letter, close contacts would have to quarantine, creating a staffing shortage.
Finally, the two-page letter said being devout didn’t automatically make someone qualify for a religious exemption, and Spivack had not made a “credible claim” that her opposition was due to her religious beliefs.
Spivack was placed on an involuntary and unpaid leave on March 21 with a warning that 15 days of unpaid leave would be considered a “break from service.” She was terminated April 8.
In addition to back pay and compensatory damages for the “injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights,” Spivack wants her job back until her case is resolved and the court to bar the DA’s office from refusing to consider these exemptions.
“She feels persecuted,” said Martinez. “All she wants is to keep her job and she’s really done everything she can in order to try to work with them to find an accommodation.”
Staff writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.