As a third-year law student, Rachel Spivack looked forward to beginning a career as a trial prosecutor.
When she was hired by the Philadelphia DA’s office, Rachel submitted a request for a religious accommodation from the DA’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. In her request, she included a letter from her rabbi and completed the DA’s form requiring a detailed explanation and substantiation of her religious beliefs. The written policy explained that “requests would be individually assessed and collaboratively discussed on a case-by-case basis.” While waiting, Rachel complied with the office’s requirement of wearing a double mask.
In January 2022, Lawrence Krasner, the Philadelphia District Attorney, reviewed the exemption or accommodation requests, including eight for religious reasons. He possessed and asserted “sole discretion” to grant any exemption request or make any accommodation, notwithstanding written policy or unwritten practice. Krasner granted one medical exemption request and required that employee to comply with masking and cleaning accommodations to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. Krasner denied all religious exemption or accommodation requests because he believed he was not legally required to grant them.
Rachel received a form denial letter, which claimed that providing her with a religious exemption or accommodation posed an “undue hardship,” even though the mandate did not apply to unionized employees and “reasonable accommodations” were available to others.
When Rachel refused to violate her religious beliefs, the District Attorney’s office placed her on unpaid administrative leave and then terminated her employment.
The District Attorney’s office’s vaccine mandate did not apply to unionized employees, whose collective bargaining agreements provided for religious exemptions. Ten unionized employees received exemptions (nine religious and one medical) from the City. One nonunionized employee also received a medical exemption. The nonunionized, medically exempt employee was required to comply with masking and cleaning accommodations to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19. Krasner did not require the exempted union employees to take mitigation measures.
Such actions are discriminatory, inconsistent, and wrong. The Constitution and the Supreme Court has made it clear: the government is not free to disregard the First Amendment’s protection of religious liberty in times of crisis.
Rachel takes her faith seriously and simply asked the District Attorney to respect her deeply held, constitutionally protected beliefs. Vaccine mandates should be implemented in a lawful way that respects a peron’s beliefs. No American should be punished or shamed for living according to the tenets of their faith.
First Liberty Institute is fighting for Rachel and has filed an appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.