Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination over religion.
By Zachary Stieber 10/4/2023 Updated:10/4/2023 The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has sued two businesses for firing workers who had sought religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. United Healthcare Services, a Cleveland-based health care provider, and Arkansas-based Hank's Furniture violated federal law when denying the exemption requests and firing the workers, according to the suits.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars discrimination over religion and requires businesses to accommodate a worker's religious practice unless doing so would cause "undue hardship." “Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from getting a COVID-19 vaccine, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation unless it would pose an undue hardship,” Debra Lawrence, a regional attorney for the EEOC, said in a statement. “Neither healthcare providers nor COVID-19 vaccination requirements are excepted from Title VII’s protections against religious discrimination.”
Marsha Rucker, another EEOC attorney, said the suit against the furniture retailer "should remind employers they must communicate with employees requesting accommodation for religious beliefs and try to accommodate those beliefs whenever reasonably possible." She pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found in favor of a U.S. Postal Service mail carrier who sued after the service refused to accommodate his request not to work on Sundays. "There is now a higher bar for employers to meet when denying a religious accommodation," Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a law firm that brings similar cases, said in a statement. "People should not have to choose between their faith and their job.” The EEOC said in 2021 that businesses could impose COVID-19 vaccine mandates but would need to provide religious and medical accommodations.
United Healthcare told The Epoch Times in an email that it plans to "vigorously defend ourselves" against the suit. "Among other things, the EEOC’s contention that the employee in question was a remote worker with no in-person job responsibilities is inaccurate," the company said. "We continue to respect individual beliefs while working to ensure the health, well-being, and safety of our colleagues and those we are privileged to serve."
Hank's Furniture didn't have lawyers listed on the court docket and couldn't otherwise be reached. Remote Worker Fired
Amanda Stone, who started working for United in 2014, was promoted in 2016 to a supervisory position. She was transitioned to work full time from home in 2018 due to budget cuts. Since then, Ms. Stone's job hasn't involved any face-to-face duties or a need to enter United facilities, according to one of the suits.
Along with many other U.S. companies, United Healthcare in October 2021 announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The vaccination requirement was purportedly only for workers who needed to enter the company's facilities or meet face-to-face with customers, suppliers, or members. United specified that it didn't apply to people who worked remotely. Ms. Stone, though, received word that she needed to get a shot, the suit said. Ms. Stone is a Christian who said she has sincerely held religious beliefs, including an opposition to abortion that prevents her from receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. The shots were developed with or tested using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.
Ms. Stone submitted a religious exemption request on Oct. 6, 2021, outlining her objections to vaccination. United issued a denial on Oct. 26, 2021.
Ms. Stone asked her boss how to appeal the decision. She was told she couldn't appeal but could try again. Ms. Stone did so and was denied a second time. She wasn't informed either time why she was denied.
United told Ms. Stone on Nov. 30, 2021, that she was being placed on leave for not complying with the mandate. United said if she didn't receive a vaccine, she might be terminated. United fired her on Jan. 2, 2022.
The U.S. court in southern Ohio was asked to block United from discriminating against people on the basis of their religion, ordering United to give Ms. Stone back pay with interest, front pay, or reinstatement, and provide compensation for losses resulting in its discrimination. Company Said It Would Never Grant Exemption
Kaitlyn O'Neal started working for Hank's Furniture in 2020 and was promoted in 2021 to be an assistant manager.
Ms. O'Neal was informed by the company in July 2021 that it planned to encourage employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the other suit. The company wanted all managers to immediately receive a shot.
Ms. O'Neal said she didn't plan to get the vaccine.
Several weeks later, Ms. O'Neal informed the company that she had sincerely held religious beliefs that would prevent her from getting vaccinated and asked for a religious exemption. Hank's Furniture sent her online articles in an attempt to change her mind, according to the suit. When contacted by the company, Ms. O'Neal said she hadn't. When she inquired about how to submit a written request for a religious exemption, the company didn't respond. When Ms. O'Neal complained, her manager and supervisor said Hank's Furniture didn't care about her reasons and that the company would never grant an exemption, the EEOC said. On Aug. 20, 2021, Hank's Furniture announced that its policy of encouragement had become a vaccine mandate. Workers who didn't receive a vaccine by Oct. 31, 2021, would be fired, it said.
Ms. O'Neal submitted a written request for accommodation, which was ignored by the company.
After she followed up, the company said her request was "severely lacking" and was rejected. Ms. O'Neal asked for help in filing a proper request, but the company refused, before firing her on Oct. 31, 2021.
The EEOC asked the U.S. court in northern Florida to award Ms. O'Neal back pay with interest and order Hank's Furniture to pay front pay or reinstatement, compensation for losses, and damages. The company should also be blocked from discriminating against workers on the basis of religion, the agency said.1039 Zachary Stieber Author (Reporter) Zachary Stieber is a senior reporter for The Epoch Times based in Maryland. He covers U.S. and world news. Contact Zachary at firstname.lastname@example.org
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