Former Philadelphia prosecutor sues DA Larry Krasner after being denied religious exemption for vaccination mandate
A former Philadelphia assistant district attorney is suing her former boss after she was denied a religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine and later fired when she didn’t get vaccinated.
Rachel Spivack’s lawsuit, filed in federal court in Philadelphia in mid-April, alleges that District Attorney Larry Krasner violated her First Amendment rights and the Commonwealth’s Religious Freedom Protection Act, while granting exemptions for other employees, including those with serious health conditions.
“They’re basically making a value judgment that the religious objections aren’t important enough relative to their own secular reasons,” said Christina Martinez, one of Spivack’s attorneys.
The lawsuit alleges that Krasner personally considered and rejected all requests for religious exemption “solely on the basis of his hostility to religion.”
Spivack worked as a prosecutor for less than a year before being fired.
The prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the ongoing litigation, but said it was following the law on religious exemption requests and that all faiths received impartial treatment.
The city was also named as a defendant. A city spokesperson declined to comment on Monday.
“As public safety demands, we are upholding our elevated obligation to protect the health of DAO personnel, their families and communities, and the general public from a damaging, sometimes deadly virus,” the office said in a statement.
As an independent elected representative, Krasner’s vaccination mandate for his employees is separate from the mandate that other city employees must follow, which has faced enforcement delays due to union refusal. And while the city hasn’t released the percentage of religious exceptions it grants, union leaders said they haven’t been hard to get.
Spivack, an Orthodox Jew, described a more tedious process. She began applying for 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, NY
Chayempour wrote that Spivack was a member of the congregation and together they discussed how Judaic law applied to her. In the end, they decided on “natural immunity” and the scriptures made it impossible for Spivack to get vaccinated, Chayempour said.
Spivack provided additional information to back up its exemption request in December, explaining how it has kept itself “above the kosher standard” – which includes a ban on consuming any dairy product that has not been processed. under Jewish supervision — and how her faith informed her medical care. Spivack explained that she does not take painkillers or undergo general medical procedures on the Sabbath or holidays.
Spivack also said her faith earned her a tetanus vaccine exemption from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2018 when she was a student. Then, as in 2021, Spivack’s exemption filing centered on how those vaccines were made and how Judaic law prohibited him from “injecting himself with prohibited mixtures.”
Spivack’s attorney said his client continues to work in person while awaiting 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 several months at the height of the pandemic are no longer suitable or acceptable,”
The prosecutor’s office refuse Spivack’s exemption request in March, the drafting of the law allows him to refuse exemptions based on religious beliefs if they create an undue burden on the office. Waiver of the mandate, they wrote in a letter, would create an undue burden on the office, as would accommodations such as testing.
“Weekly testing does not protect against intermediate 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 did not offer as much protection as the vaccine and was difficult to enforce. In addition, unvaccinated people “have a significantly higher likelihood of transmitting the disease to other employees”, and if a person became ill, read the letter, close contacts would have to be quarantined, creating a staff shortage. .
Finally, the two-page letter stated that being pious did not automatically make someone eligible for a religious exemption, and Spivack had not made a “credible assertion” that his opposition was due to his religious beliefs.
Spivack was placed on involuntary and unpaid leave on March 21 with a warning that 15 days of unpaid leave would be considered a “break in service”. She was completed April 8.
In addition to back pay and compensatory damages for “injuries caused by the deprivation of constitutional rights,” Spivack wants his job back until his case is resolved and the court prohibits the prosecutor’s office from refusing. to examine these exemptions.
“She feels persecuted,” Martinez said. “All she wants is to keep her job and she’s really gone out of her way to try to work with them to find accommodation.”
Writer Sean Collins Walsh contributed to this article.