Dilworth Defends Private College Against Attempt to Avoid COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement

Dilworth Paxson LLP attorneys, led by Partner Marjorie McMahon Obod, successfully defended Williamson College of the Trades against an unvaccinated student’s attempt to compel the school to enroll him, in contravention of its COVID-19 vaccine requirement. Delaware County Judge Kelly Eckel rejected Plaintiff’s claim that Williamson violated the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act (PHRA), the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act (PFEOA), and Pennsylvania common law by denying him a religious exemption to its vaccine requirement.

Williamson is a private, residential technical college in Media, Pennsylvania. In the spring of 2020, Williamson announced it would require vaccinations for all students in the upcoming school year unless they qualified for a religious or medical exemption. Williamson required that students seeking religious exemptions provide both a statement of doctrine from their religious group indicating that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine violated the religious group’s beliefs, and a statement from a religious leader confirming that they belonged to such group. Plaintiff, a Roman Catholic student entering his final year at Williamson, applied for an exemption, claiming that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine developed with the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses would violate his religious beliefs. Williamson denied the exemption on the basis that the Roman Catholic Church has publicly stated that Roman Catholics may receive any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. Williamson did, however, offer Plaintiff the opportunity to return in a subsequent year provided he receive a COVID-19 vaccine, or in the event that the College changed its vaccine policy.

Plaintiff sued Williamson claiming, inter alia, that its denial of his exemption request constituted religious discrimination in violation of the PHRA and PFEOA and common law “wrongful expulsion.” Plaintiff sought injunctive relief on the basis of these claims, but he did not file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission (“PHRC”).

Judge Eckel denied the injunction on several grounds, and in doing so, clarified several important points of law related to religious vaccine exemptions in the educational context. First, the opinion clarified that to establish religious discrimination under the PHRA and PFEOA, a plaintiff must do more than demonstrate that his belief is sincerely held and religious in nature; the plaintiff must also demonstrate that defendant’s actions were a pretext for intentional discrimination. Second, the opinion clarified that the Title II framework (which applies to public accommodations) rather than the Title VII framework (which applies in the employment context) is the federal analog to the PHRA for religious discrimination claims against colleges and universities. Significantly, the opinion concluded that, as places of public accommodation, private colleges and universities have no obligation to offer religious accommodations to their students. Third, the implicit opinion concluded that a private college or university may adopt its own standards for determining whether a student is entitled to a religious exemption, provided the standard is non-discriminatory both facially, and as applied. The Court ruled that to establish a religious discrimination claim under the PHRA or PFEOA, the standard in First Amendment/free exercise cases, where a person’s belief is protected provided it is sincerely held and religious in nature, regardless of whether the belief conforms to the doctrine of the person’s religious group is inapplicable. Fourth, the opinion affirmed that, in the injunctive context, a delay in educational services does not constitute irreparable harm where a student has not been definitively precluded from returning to the institution. Fifth, the opinion affirmed that a plaintiff may not be excused from the PHRA and PFEOA’s administrative exhaustion requirement simply because the plaintiff claims the matter is urgent, especially where the plaintiff knew about the alleged harm for months before filing a complaint.

In sum, Judge Eckel’s opinion suggests that post-secondary educational institutions seeking to impose a vaccine requirement may do so, either with or without providing religious exemptions, provided any exemption policy is applied consistently.