News Story

Ann Arbor firefighter files lawsuit over firing due to rejected religious exemption

Standoff on COVID-19 vaccine ended a 22-year career

Tim Rugg, an Ann Arbor firefighter for 22 years, says he was fired for refusing the COVID-19 vaccination after being refused a religious exemption. Rugg and three other Ann Arbor city employees have filed a civil lawsuit against the city. Rugg said the reason the city denied him a religious exemption is because the city determined his claim was not sincere.

Ann Arbor implemented a COVID-19 vaccination requirement in August 2021. Rugg said he submitted a religious exemption request shortly after but was refused on the grounds he was not sincere enough in his faith. He said he was suspended without pay in November 2021 and was terminated a month later during a meeting with human resources.

There was no other reason given for Rugg’s firing, according to Noah Hurwitz, his lawyer.

During the termination meeting, Rugg said, two union representatives, his lawyer, and his pastor attended, along with two of the city’s human resource employees.

Rugg’s union went to arbitration and the arbitrator said Ruggs had to undergo a second interview to determine his sincerity. The interview happened on May 15, 2023, with Rugg’s pastor present. Again, the city decided Rugg’s claim was not sincere.

Hurwitz said his law firm is taking on many similar cases. He believes that 98% of employers conducted themselves properly when it came to their COVID-19 policies, including granting exemptions. He also said that some clients say their employers acted inappropriately.

Hurwitz said the city of San Francisco was also sued after it fired employees for what it deemed insufficient sincerity. A district court judge ruled that the employees did not prove their sincere belief, and therefore ruled in favor of the city.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard an appeal. It remanded the case to the district court, with instructions to the judge to reevaluate the claims “applying the proper failure-to-accommodate inquiry.” The Ninth Circuit court ruled, “It seems that the district court erroneously held that Appellants had not asserted sincere religious beliefs because their beliefs were not scientifically accurate.”

The appeals court said that one’s religious beliefs do not have to be “consistent or rational” to be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Bloomberg Law said employers who are hasty to deny a religious exemption “may run afoul of federal and state law, creating a liability for employers.”

Bloomberg said that an employee’s religious beliefs do not need to be consistently observed to be deemed sincere. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that “a sincere religious believer doesn’t forfeit his religious rights merely because he is not scrupulous in his observance, although ‘[e]vidence tending to show that an employee acted in a manner inconsistent with his professed religious belief is, of course, relevant to the factfinder’s evaluation of sincerity.’”

The city of Ann Arbor declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.