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Princeton files motion for dismissal of religious discrimination suit brought by ex-employee

<h5>Bright gold leaves blanket the lawn in front of Nassau Hall.&nbsp;</h5>
<h6>Guanyi Cao / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Bright gold leaves blanket the lawn in front of Nassau Hall. 
Guanyi Cao / The Daily Princetonian

Princeton University filed a motion on Sept. 20 requesting that a religious discrimination lawsuit, brought forward by former University budget analyst Kate McKinley, be dismissed. The lawsuit, filed on Aug. 16, alleged that the University fired McKinley due to her religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine employee requirement and other pandemic protocols.

McKinley was provided with a religious exemption from receiving the vaccine, but further requested exemptions from testing, mask-wearing, and contact tracing. The University’s filing notes that McKinley did not specify her religious reasonings for requesting those subsequent accommodations. Rather, she had “generalized medical objections, including that healthy people should not have to wear masks,” according to the University.

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The filing, which argues for the dismissal of McKinley’s suit, claims that Princeton did not discriminate nor retaliate against her. It states that McKinley failed to plead her claims for religious discrimination and retaliation, and that the complaint fails to meet federal pleading standards.

The initial lawsuit was filed on the grounds of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD), and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). 

In an email to The Daily Princetonian, University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said that the University has nothing to add to its initial statement on the suit.

“The University handled this former employee’s accommodation request fairly, appropriately, and in accordance with the applicable laws and internal policies,” University spokesperson Ayana Okoya previously told the ‘Prince.’ “We intend to defend the litigation vigorously and expect to vindicate our actions in court.” 

McKinley is represented by Vlasac & Shmaruk, LLC, which did not respond to a request for comment.

The University's filing argues that McKinley’s termination from the University did not violate Title VII or NJLAD due to a prior ruling in “Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center.”

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The filing cited Fallon and stated that employees must “explain how their purported beliefs conflicting with an employer’s policies are religious in nature.” This argument, if held up in court, would refute McKinley’s claim of retaliation, as the filing states that McKinley “was informed that compliance with Princeton’s COVID-19 safety protocols was a condition for continued employment at Princeton,” but that she chose not to comply, which in turn served as the grounds for her termination. 

The University stated in the filing that it did not violate GINA because McKinley did “not allege that the saliva samples taken from Princeton’s employees were being used for any purpose other than COVID-19 testing, which is a public health measure sanctioned by the CDC and the New Jersey Department of Health.” According to the filing, McKinley did not allege that her employment was terminated due to her genetic information. 

McKinley also filed a discrimination complaint against the University through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The University’s filing notes that the EEOC allows employers to mandate periodic COVID-19 testing and that GINA can only be invoked when employers request specific genetic information from employees.

A similar case was successfully combated by Rutgers University last year, in which a federal judge decided not to block the University’s vaccine mandate. In that case, the judge found that the plaintiffs “failed to demonstrate the action was likely to succeed or that the plaintiffs would face irreparable harm.” Similar cases in other states have been similarly unsuccessful.

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The University will move to dismiss the complaint in court on Oct. 17.

Olivia Sanchez is a news contributor for the ‘Prince.’ She can be reached at oliviasanchez@princeton.edu or on Twitter @oliviamsanc.

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