Lately I’ve been helping quite a few people with their religious exemption applications, particularly in regards to one particular hospital in West Virginia. Since I’ve talked with numerous employees, I’ve seen the identical boilerplate form email denials from the hospital – whether the employee is a physician, nurse or remote IT worker. From what I’ve been told the only religious exemptions they’ve granted have been to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Otherwise, they’ve been arguing with employees that mainstream Christianity doesn’t oppose the COVID vaccines.
Since these employers are private employers, rather than agencies of the government, the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to them. Generally they can just fire employees at-will in West Virginia. However, there are state and federal statutes which provide they can’t do so pursuant to religious discrimination. This hospital appears to be discriminating between Jehovah’s Witnesses and other belief systems. In fact, it’s really not the employer’s right to tell the employee what they believe, but rather only to determine whether the belief is sincerely-held, and to accommodate it, if doing so wouldn’t be an undue hardship to the company.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) “makes it an unlawful employment practice ‘to discharge any individual because of such individual’s religion.’” EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131, 141 (4th Cir. 2017). In other words, the law provides potentially significant protections to West Virginians who might seek a religious exemption from an employer-imposed vaccine requirement. To make out a prima facie case of that type of discrimination, an employee must show that “(1) he or she has a bona fide religious belief that conflicts with an employment requirement; (2) he or she informed the employer of this belief, and, (3) he or she was not hired or promoted, fired, or otherwise discriminated against for failure to comply with the conflicting employment requirement.” Henegar v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 965 F. Supp. 833, 836 (N.D.W. Va. 1997). “[A]n employer must make reasonable accommodation for the religious observances of its employees, short of incurring an undue hardship.” Consol Energy, 860 F.3d at 141. An accommodation becomes an “undue hardship” when it imposes “more than a de minimis cost” on the employer. Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Hardison, 432 U.S. 63, 84, 97 S. Ct. 2264 2277, 53 L. Ed. 2d 113 (1977).
West Virginia lies within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit specifically has warned employers that it’s not their place to question the correctness or plausibility of an employee’s religious understandings:
It is not Consol’s place as an employer, nor ours as a court, to question the correctness or even the plausibility of Butcher’s religious understandings. See Emp’t Div., Dep’t of Human Res. of Or. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 887, 110 S.Ct. 1595, 108 L.Ed.2d 876 (1990) (“Repeatedly and in many different contexts, we have warned that courts must not presume to determine … the plausibility of a religious claim.”). Butcher’s religious beliefs are protected whether or not his pastor agrees with them, cf. Thomas v. Review Bd. of Ind. Emp’t Sec. Div. , 450 U.S. 707, 715–16, 101 S.Ct. 1425, 67 L.Ed.2d 624 (1981) (protection of religious beliefs not limited to beliefs shared by religious sect), and whether or not Butcher’s pastor—or Consol, or the manufacturer of Consol’s scanning system—thinks that Butcher, in seeking to protect his religious conscience, has drawn the line in the right place, see id. at 715, 101 S.Ct. 1425 (“[I]t is not for us to say that the line [the religious objector] drew was an unreasonable one.”). So long as there is sufficient evidence that Butcher’s beliefs are sincerely held—which the jury specifically found, and Consol does not dispute—and conflict with Consol’s employment requirement, that is the end of the matter.
U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2017) (emphasis added).
Certainly, for employees who are now working remotely, it would be difficult for the employer to claim that further accommodation during a pandemic is an undue hardship. The Fourth Circuit addressed this in the Consol Energy case:
Indeed, once we take out of this case any suggestion that Butcher may have misunderstood the Book of Revelation or the significance of the Mark of the Beast, there is very little left. This case does not present, for instance, the complicated questions that sometimes arise when an employer asserts as a defense to a religious accommodation claim that the requested accommodation would not be feasible, and would instead impose an “undue hardship” on its operations. See Firestone Fibers , 515 F.3d at 311–12 ; TransWorld Airlines , 432 U.S. at 79–85, 97 S.Ct. 2264 (considering whether requested religious accommodation was feasible). Quite the contrary: Consol expressly conceded that allowing Butcher to bypass the scan by entering his identification number into a keypad would impose no additional burdens or costs on the company. And Consol knew this, of course, because it had provided precisely that accommodation to two other employees who needed it for non-religious reasons—and then, in the very same email, refused to give equal regard to Butcher’s request for a religious accommodation. In light of all of this evidence, we have no reason to question the jury’s determination that Consol should be held liable for its response to a conflict between Butcher’s sincere religious beliefs and its scanner-system requirements.U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2017) (emphasis added).
Another thing this hospital has been doing is informing employees that they aren’t being disciplined or terminated, but instead are choosing to “voluntarily” resign. The Fourth Circuit rejected that claim already in the same case I’ve already cited:
“According to Consol, Butcher was not disciplined or terminated but instead voluntarily retired, and the jury’s contrary finding of constructive discharge cannot be sustained on the evidence introduced at trial.”….
We agree with the district court that there exists substantial evidence that Butcher was put in an intolerable position when Consol refused to accommodate his religious objection, requiring him to use a scanner system that Butcher sincerely believed would render him a follower of the Antichrist, “tormented with fire and brimstone.” J.A. 683–84. This goes well beyond the kind of run-of-the-mill “dissatisfaction with work assignments, [ ] feeling of being unfairly criticized, or difficult or unpleasant working conditions” that we have viewed as falling short of objective intolerability. Cf. Carter v. Ball , 33 F.3d 450, 459 (4th Cir. 1994) (internal quotation marks omitted). And like the district court, we do not think that the future prospect of a successful grievance under a collective bargaining agreement—even assuming, contrary to the union’s determination, that the collective bargaining agreement at issue here allowed for a grievance based on a right to religious accommodation—would do anything to alleviate the immediate intolerability of Butcher’s circumstances.U.S. Equal Emp’t Opportunity Comm’n v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131 (4th Cir. 2017) (emphasis added).
Thus, despite this hospital’s attempts at mislabeling the termination of their employees as “voluntary” resignations, they will still remain potentially liable because their intention is to force the employee out – to give them no choice of staying. That’s either a termination, or a constructive termination. The remedy here is to file a charge with the EEOC, after which the charge will run its course with the EEOC and then litigation for religious discrimination can ensue – hopefully to a jury for a large award of damages.
Here’s a link to the EEOC website where you go through their online portal in order to file an EEOC charge for religious discrimination against an employer: