NJ State employee sues over religious exemption for COVID vaccine

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WOOD TO WOOD — A state employee fired for not being vaccinated against COVID-19 after being denied a religious exemption is suing to get his job back.

Kuan Bowleg, a 15-year-old employee at Woodbine Developmental Center, says he was approved for a religious exemption from the flu shot in October 2021, but was later denied the religious exemption this year for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Located in Cape May County, the center is operated by the state Department of Social Services. It is home to about 700 men with intellectual or developmental disabilities, according to DHS.

The lawsuit, filed November 3, states that there was a “conflict between the defendants’ demand for a COVID-19 vaccine and Mr. Bowleg’s sincere religious beliefs.”

DHS and the Woodbine Developmental Center did not respond to requests for comment.

NJ COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

Bowleg was fired in late March, following Governor Murphy’s mandate announced Jan. 19 requiring health care workers and other workers in “congregate settings” to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

READ MORE: Governor Murphy to NJ healthcare workers: Get vaccinated or get fired

The mandate called for workers to receive their first dose and booster by March 30. It ended a “test” option for workers who could previously work as long as they tested negative for the virus.

“Anyone found in non-compliance will be subject to their workplace’s disciplinary process, up to and including termination,” Murphy said at the time.

Religious exemption for the COVID-19 vaccine

The decree provided several exemptions, including for “a sincere religious belief, practice or observance”.

However, the lawsuit, filed by lawyers from the Thomas More Society, a conservative nonprofit law firm, says the firm and Bowleg are not aware of anyone who has received a religious exemption.

The lawsuit states that Bowleg is a member of the First Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Last year he published his first children’s book. According to a candidate profile by frontrunnernewjersey.com, the book “encourages young readers to keep God first in their lives” and uphold family values.

According to Bowleg, who ran for Millville town commissioner last year, he received a letter from the center with a generic explanation for his dismissal. The lawsuit says the same message was sent to all center employees who requested a religious exemption.

Woodbine Development Center administration building. (DHS)

Woodbine Development Center administration building. (DHS)

“We recognize your religious exemption and do not judge its sincerity,” the letter reads, according to the lawsuit. “Given the nature of your duties, complying with your request for religious exemption would constitute an undue hardship on the center and its residents, as it would expose them to harm.”

Prior to Murphy’s executive order in January, Bowleg was able to work with “reasonable accommodations,” according to the suit.

At the center, he wore a mask and gloves and complied with regular COVID-19 testing. Additionally, the lawsuit claims that in his role as coordinator of the habilitation plan, Bowleg worked alone in an office on an administrative floor.

Bowleg says that because the center was able to adjust to his unvaccinated status for two years before the term, there was no reason to believe that his continued employment would pose further “undue hardship”.

The lawsuit names DHS, the Woodbine Developmental Center and several center employees as defendants. He seeks damages, attorneys’ fees and the reinstatement of Bowleg in his job.

Rick Rickman is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at richard.rickman@townsquaremedia.com

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