The university "acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner" when it fired Kaycee McCoy, a cytotechnologist, in 2021, Virginia District Court Judge Claude Worrell Jr. said in a July 27 ruling.
Ms. McCoy had asked for a religious exemption to the university's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, with support from her pastor.
But her employer denied the request and terminated Ms. McCoy in November 2021.
Ms. McCoy quickly took her case to the courts, saying that the refusal to grant an exemption violated Virginia's Constitution, which states in part that all citizens are "entitled to the free exercise of religion" and that no citizen "shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief."
The university defended its decision, arguing that the plaintiff's "personal opinions" and "personal preferences" did not make her entitled to a religious exemption. They also said they did not have to grant her an exemption even if her objection was based on sincere beliefs.
Judge Worrell disagreed, finding in favor of the plaintiff.
Virginia courts uphold governmental actions unless the actions are "arbitrary and capricious" or those taken "without a determining principle," according to previous court decisions.
The university wrongly applied a test aimed at determining the sincerity of belief, the judge said, which "is violative of the separation of church and state doctrine enshrined in both the Virginia and federal constitutions."
He reversed the termination, ordered the university not to fire Ms. McCoy again, provided she met the exemption requirements, and awarded the plaintiff damages equal to the salary she would have received since being fired, plus interest.
The university did not respond to a request for comment.
Lawyers for Ms. McCoy said the court "handed a victory" to the plaintiff.
Requests Exemption After Mandate Announced
Ms. McCoy started working for the University of Virginia in 2011. She is a cytotechnologist or a laboratory worker who analyzes cells.
The university imposed the COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Aug. 25, 2021, but said it would consider medical and religious exemption requests. The university cited guidance by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat who said that universities could require COVID-19 vaccination but that they should "be prepared to provide reasonable accommodation for medical conditions and/or religious objections."
Ms. McCoy filed her exemption request on Sept. 12, 2021, before the deadline for such requests.
Ms. McCoy's objection was partly based on how fetal cells were used in testing or developing all the COVID-19 vaccines.
"The presence of and use of immortalized human cell lines taken against the will of the person aborted, having been used in the development of vaccinations, violates my sincere and firm beliefs that participation in the vaccination mandate is an indirect engagement and participation in abortion," Ms. McCoy told the university.
She also sent a letter from her pastor confirming the sincerity of Ms. McCoy's beliefs.
"I fully support Kaycee's right to this objection based on the exercise of her own personal and faithful convictions," the pastor wrote.
Several weeks later, the university denied the request, with no rationale provided.
Ms. McCoy asked for a reason for the denial, but the university said all decisions made by a body described as the "Health System Vaccine Religious Exemption Committee" were final, and no appeals were allowed. Additional information supporting the request could be provided, according to the message, from human resources.
The email said employees not in compliance with the mandate as of Nov. 1, 2021, would be subject to punitive action, including possible termination.
Ms. McCoy was on vacation during the first week of November 2021. When she went to work on the first day after returning from vacation, she met with a supervisor who told her she was suspended and would be fired in five days.
Later that day, an email confirming that the university would not change its denial decision arrived in Ms. McCoy's inbox.
Mandate Kept in Place
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, issued an executive order upon taking office in 2022 that said any "requirement of state employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccination and disclose their vaccination status or engage in mandatory testing is harmful to their individual freedoms and privacy."
Mr. Youngkin ordered a halt to such mandates at state institutions, including state universities.
The University of Virginia suspended its mandate for some employees but not workers in its health system.
The university cited a federal rule that forced health care institutions to require COVID-19 vaccination if they receive Medicare or Medicaid funding.
President Joe Biden's administration ended that rule, and many other mandates, in May. Mr. Biden said the decline in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths led to the change.