Unvaccinated Wash. CO sues governor over possible 'reassignment'

The officer received a religious exemption but now feels his future with the department is in jeopardy


By Kristin M. Kraemer
Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)
        
PASCO, Wash. — A Connell prison guard challenging the vaccine mandate for state employees is fighting the governor's attempt to move the case out of Franklin County.

Jeffrey Johnson filed a lawsuit in September against Washington Gov. Jay Inslee in response to his proclamation on the COVID-19 vaccination requirement.

Johnson, an employee at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center, qualifies for an exemption "based on a sincerely held religious belief that prevents (him) from being vaccinated against COVID-19," according to court documents.

Johnson's lawsuit asks a judge to declare that Inslee's vaccine mandate is unconstitutional and void.
Johnson's lawsuit asks a judge to declare that Inslee's vaccine mandate is unconstitutional and void. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The corrections officer wrote that his creed prohibits him from injecting any vaccine to protect against infectious diseases or other form of medication into his body without his "explicit verbal or written consent for an indefinite amount of time."

His religious exemption was granted by the Washington state Department of Corrections after Johnson submitted a second request.

However, the department said the only reasonable accommodation it can offer Johnson is "the possibility of reassignment" because his unvaccinated status "poses a threat to the health or safety of yourself and others in the workplace," his lawsuit states.

That accommodation, according to the suit, poses an uncertainty to Johnson and both his present and future employment status with the state agency. He was asked by the department to submit an up-to-date resume describing his work experience, education and skills.

COVID inmate deaths

The Department of Corrections reports 445 confirmed COVID cases in Coyote Ridge inmates throughout the pandemic and 289 in employees and contracted staff. Three Coyote Ridge inmates have died from complications of the coronavirus.

There have been 24 new positive cases in the previous 30 days at the prison, according to its online COVID-19 data dashboard.

Johnson's lawsuit, filed in Franklin County Superior Court, asks a judge to declare that Inslee's proclamation is unconstitutional and void.

The proclamation issued by Inslee applies to all state employees, higher education, childcare and K-12 education employees, along with most health and long-term care providers, according to the governor's website on "Frequently Asked Questions" about the vaccine mandate.

The workers must be "fully vaccinated" by Oct. 18 as a condition of employment, unless they were granted a medical or religious exemption.

Any employee who refuses "will be subject to non-disciplinary dismissal from employment for failing to meet the qualifications of the job," according to the governor's website.

Qualifying employers are being instructed to verify vaccination status of all employees as a condition of employment.

The website states that Inslee is on legal grounds to impose the mandate as part of his state of emergency declared Feb. 29, 2020, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to Inslee, Johnson's lawsuit is against the state Department of Corrections, Secretary Cheryl Strange and the state of Washington.

Emergency motion

Johnson is represented by Pete Serrano — lead counsel for nonprofit Silent Majority Foundation — and Nathan J. Arnold of Seattle.

Serrano also is a Pasco city councilman.

Arnold is the lead attorney on a lawsuit, also filed last month, by about 100 state workers challenging Inslee's vaccine mandate.

That case was filed in Walla Walla County Superior Court, where a judge recently ordered it moved to Thurston County since Inslee's order was made in Olympia.

Inslee's legal team made the same move in Johnson's Franklin County case, saying the state capital is the proper venue for the action since it was brought against a state official on a matter that has statewide effect.

That request was denied by Judge Dave Petersen.

Inslee's team immediately filed an appeal, seeking discretionary review by the Washington state Supreme Court.

On Friday, Supreme Court Commissioner Michael E. Johnston granted an emergency motion to stay proceedings in the Franklin County case while the justices decide whether to take up the review or not.

A date has not been set for the Supreme Court to decide, but all legal briefs must be filed this week.

(c)2021 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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