WOODBINE — A state worker fired for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccination after being denied a religious exemption is suing to get his job back.

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

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

The lawsuit, filed Nov. 3, states that there was a "conflict between Defendants' COVID-19 vaccine requirement and Mr. Bowleg's sincerely held religious beliefs."

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

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NJ COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Bowleg was terminated in late March, following Gov. Murphy's mandate announced on Jan. 19 requiring healthcare workers and other workers in "congregate settings" to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

READ MORE: Gov. Murphy to NJ healthcare workers: Get vaccine or get fired

The mandate called for workers to receive their first dose and booster by Mar. 30. It ended a "test-out" option for workers who previously could 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 COVID-19 vaccine

The executive order included several exemptions including for "sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance."

However, the lawsuit, filed by attorneys with the Thomas More Society, a conservative nonprofit law firm, states that the firm and Bowleg are not aware of anyone who 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 city commissioner last year, he received a letter from the center with a generic explanation for his termination. The lawsuit states that the same message was sent to all employees at the center who requested a religious exemption.

Woodbine Developmental Center administrative building. (DHS)
Woodbine Developmental Center administrative building. (DHS)
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"We acknowledge your religious exemption and do not judge its sincerity," the letter stated, according to the suit. "Given the nature of your job duties, to accommodate your request for a religious exemption would pose an undue hardship on the center and its residents because it would expose them to harm."

Before Murphy's executive order in January, Bowleg was able to work with "reasonable accommodation," according to the suit.

While 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 a habilitation plan coordinator, Bowleg worked alone in an office on an administrative floor.

Bowleg claims that as the center was able to accommodate his unvaccinated status for two years before the mandate, there was no reason to believe that his continued employment would pose a new "undue hardship."

The lawsuit names the DHS, Woodbine Developmental Center, and several employees at the center as defendants. It seeks damages, attorneys' fees, and Bowleg's reinstatement to 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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