Ninth Circuit Reinstates Spokane Vaccine Case Back to District Court

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has reinstated a lawsuit brought by Spokane firefighters who sought an exemption from the COVID19 vaccine mandate on religious grounds, and remanded the case back to the district court. The district court dismissed the case back in 2022 ruling that the city’s enforcement of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s vaccine mandate was valid.

The firefighters filed suit in 2021 challenging the city’s denial of their request for a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate. Firefighters who failed to get the COVID19 vaccine were terminated. The district court upheld the city’s application of the vaccine mandate despite having denied every members’ request for a sincerely-held religious belief exemption. In reversing, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the district court misapplied the strict scrutiny standard.

Quoting from the complaint

  • Although Spokane refused to grant accommodation requests to its own firefighters, several other fire departments in Washington—each of which, no less than Spokane, were subject to the Proclamation—granted religious and medical accommodations to their firefighters.
  • Some of those departments neighbored Spokane and had a mutual assistance agreement with Spokane under which their firefighters entered Spokane “on a daily basis to provide emergency services.”
  • Private medical groups also operate within Spokane. One such company, American Medical Response, is a private medical transportation service that “provides emergency transport services within Spokane, including in conjunction with the Spokane Fire Department.”
  • Though it “responds to tens of thousands of calls per year in the City of Spokane,” it never adhered to a “strict requirement that all ambulance operators be vaccinated.”
  • Here, the firefighters plausibly assert that the individual City Defendants applied the Proclamation arbitrarily and capriciously, and that they thereby showed callous disregard to the firefighters’ Free Exercise rights.
  • We have explained that a law burdening religious exercise is subject to “the most rigorous of scrutiny” unless it is both neutral and generally applicable.
  • We need not decide whether Spokane’s implementation of the vaccine requirement was “neutral,” because we conclude that the firefighters have plausibly pled that it was not “generally applicable.”
  • This conclusion flows directly from the well-trodden principles addressed above.
  • The Complaint alleges that, once unvaccinated firefighters were terminated, Spokane would turn to firefighters from neighboring fire departments to fill the gaps left by the firefighters’ departure even though those fire departments granted religious accommodations to their employees.
  • In other words, Spokane implemented a vaccine policy from which it exempted certain firefighters based on a secular criterion—being a member of a neighboring department—while holding firefighters who objected to vaccination on purely religious grounds to a higher standard.
  • The Free Exercise Clause prohibits governments from “treat[ing] comparable secular groups more favorably.”
  • If the secular category of “firefighters from neighboring departments” is exempt from Spokane’s policy, then the Free Exercise Clause mandates that religious objectors be granted equivalent accommodation.
  • Had Spokane subjected unvaccinated out-of-department firefighters to the same standard, its implementation of the vaccine policy might well be generally applicable. But that is not this case. By continuing to work with unvaccinated firefighters from surrounding departments, Spokane undermined its interest and destroyed any claim of general applicability.
  • The distinction between firefighters from within the County and those from without in no way aligns with or promotes the stated interest of the Proclamation. The existence of an exemption on that basis is therefore sufficient to trigger strict scrutiny.

The decision is not a complete victory for the firefighters. The court ruled that the firefighters have made a plausible First Amendment claim that they are entitled to pursue. The district court will now need to evaluate the case on its merits.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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