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Former North Charleston police officer suing city over vaccine mandate

Published: Jun. 15, 2022 at 4:21 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 15, 2022 at 6:17 PM EDT
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A former North Charleston police officer is suing the city over its former policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face termination.

Back in December, more than a dozen North Charleston police officers were fired after failing to get a COVID vaccine, which was mandatory at the time. One of those people was Paul Watson, who is now suing the city.

The lawsuit, filed by attorneys Bonnie Travaglio Hunt and Peter Kaufman, states Watson submitted a request for religious exemption on Sept. 20, 2021.

In his claim for an exemption, he stated, “I am a Christian and hold a long-standing religious view against vaccinations using aborted fetal cells in any part of the development or production phase… to agree to this vaccine would constitute as willful and intentional sin.”

Watson was notified in November that his exemption had been denied. The lawsuit alleges the city listed the following reasons:

First, the nature of your duties as a police officer, regardless of rank, is such that the alternative methods of preventing spread of COVID are not practical. There is a constant potential for emergency situations during which you will not be able to wear a mask and/or maintain six feet of distance between yourself and citizens and other police personnel. The fact that NCPD has experienced so many COVID-related absences during recent months despite the department’s best effort at using those tools makes it clear those measures were not sufficient.

Second, while there are some positions within NCPD with limited contact with others, those positions are few and far between, and the large number of police personnel requesting religious accommodation makes it impossible to transfer everyone with that request to such a position.

Third, the next most obvious accommodation method - weekly testing - is not feasible because police personnel and investigators are subject to being called upon to perform unscheduled work in emergency situations. It is not possible to establish a weekly testing date that can accommodate that, and, for obvious reasons, the City does not have the option of not responding in an emergency because employees have not submitted weekly test results.

Fourth, a significant percentage of the City’s police personnel requested religious exemptions and accommodations. The administrative complexity and cost of establishing a procedure and paying someone to maintain it and monitor compliance for that many personnel would impose an undue burden on the Department and the City.

Finally, the law only requires that employers attempt to accommodate a sincerely held religious belief. We note there were circumstances giving rise to questions about the sincerity of some of the beliefs proffered, and the City reserves all arguments on that issue. However, we need not address that at this time because the factors discussed above would prohibit accommodation regardless.

Watson still did not get the COVID vaccine and was notified on Dec. 10 that he had been terminated. The lawsuit states the city failed and refused to accommodate Watson’s requests for exemption for religious beliefs and made a determination his beliefs were not sincere.

Watson filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which issued a right to sue.

Watson is requesting a jury trial, lost wages and benefits and damages.

North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson released the following statement to the lawsuit:

The City successfully defended its vaccine mandate in prior cases and expects to similarly defend this and any other related matters that might arise in the future.

The City of North Charleston no longer has its vaccine mandate in place.

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