A former budget analyst at Princeton University filed a lawsuit in federal court against the university on Tuesday claiming that school officials improperly denied her request for a religious exemption from COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and mask requirements.
Kate McKinley, a 32-year-old Ewing resident who sought a seat on her local governing body as an independent in 2018 as part of a slate with former Republican State Senator Dick LaRossa, claims in the lawsuit that Princeton officials harassed her and fired her as retaliation for objecting to policies aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.
The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, includes claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, and the federal Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act.
Princeton University Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss said Wednesday that the school will defend its actions in court.
“The university handled this former employee’s accommodation request fairly, appropriately, and in accordance with the applicable laws and internal policies,” Hotchkiss said. “We intend to defend the litigation vigorously and expect to vindicate our actions in court.”
According to the lawsuit, the university allegedly violated Title VII by subjecting McKinley to “retaliation for her protected complaints and opposition to defendant’s discriminatory COVID-19 policies on the basis of her religious beliefs, inter alia, denying plaintiff’s request for a religious exemption to the policy and ultimately terminating plaintiff.”
The suit also claims the university violated the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act by subjecting McKinley “to retaliation for her protected complaints and opposition to the unlawful collection of genetic information.”
McKinley, who was hired by the university in May of 2017, said the institution informed her in early June of 2021 that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine would be a mandatory condition of employment. The university granted her a religious exemption for that requirement that month.
A month later, McKinley requested a religious exemption to the COVID-19 policies that included wearing a mask, participating in contact tracing, and providing saliva samples for the university’s asymptomatic testing program for employees and students.
In early September of 2021, the university denied her request, and about a week later she filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Around Sept. 16, the university fired her, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges that due to the firing, McKinley “has suffered and continues to suffer severe mental anguish and emotional distress, including, but not limited to, stress and anxiety, loss of self-esteem and self-confidence, and emotional pain and suffering.”
McKinley is seeking a jury trial and monetary damages. The lawsuit claims that the university’s “unlawful retaliatory conduct constitutes a willful and wanton violation of Title VII, was outrageous and malicious, was intended to injure [laintiff, and was done with conscious disregard of plaintiff’s civil rights, entitling plaintiff to an award of punitive damages.”