Covid Religious Discrimination ClaimsOn May 17, 2022, the Mayo Clinic was sued by a former employee who believes her religious freedoms were violated by the Clinic’s workplace vaccine policies. Notably, Mayo Clinic accepted the plaintiff’s request for a religious exemption from its vaccine requirement. But the employee, Sherry Ihde, claims Mayo Clinic’s requirement that employees exempt from the vaccine requirement must undergo weekly testing also conflicted with her interpretation of Scripture.

Why it Matters:

In response to the Covid-19, employers implemented policies like the Mayo Clinic. And like the Mayo Clinic, many employers agreed to provide some measure of religious exemption from vaccine requirements but not from testing requirements. While many of these vaccine requirement policies have been withdrawn, in their wake employers will likely see more religious discrimination litigation that second-guesses how they responded to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Going Deeper:

The Mayo Clinic implemented a workplace vaccine requirement in October 2021. Under this policy, employees had to be vaccinated against Covid-19 by December 3, 2021, or be terminated. Or employees could be approved for a medical or religious exemption. In this regard, Mayo Clinic even provided employees with exemption forms for requesting such exemptions.

When Mayo implemented its vaccine policy, Ihde worked as a supervisor in Mayo’s Bacteriology Lab in Rochester, Minnesota. While Ihde did not have direct contact with patients, she supervised the Bacteriology Lab and had to meet with staff.

In her complaint, Ihde explains she considers herself to be a Christian. She did not identify any branch of Christianity she follows, any church she attended, or any congregation she belonged to. Instead, Ihde believes, “based on her interpretation of Scripture, that her body is a Temple to the Holy Spirit and it violates her conscience to take the vaccine.”

Fortunately for Idhe, her request for a religious accommodation from taking the Covid-19 vaccine was granted. Yet this was not good enough. Specifically, Ihde  believes under her interpretation of Scripture that “frequent medical testing for Covid-19 also violates her religious beliefs.” Thus, she should have also been exempted from this requirement. Mayo disagreed and placed Ihde on administrative leave and then in February 2022, Mayo terminated Ihde.

So she sued claiming Mayo failed to tailor its workplace policy to accommodate her religious beliefs under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and she was discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and related state law claims.

This lawsuit was just filed on May 17, 2022. No response has been filed by the Mayo Clinic. Thus, it is way too early to make any predictions about how it will turn out.

Thoughts on the Lawsuit:

Religious discrimination often represents the most challenging workplace issue employers face. This is because a “religious belief” may be widely accepted or unique to a single employee. Either way, employers are generally prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against employees based on sincerely held religious beliefs.

Under Federal law, employers must provide employees or prospective employees “reasonable accommodations,” unless to do so would create “undue hardship.” In contrast, Michigan’s anti-discrimination statute imposes no affirmative duty to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs.

With this background, the “body is a Temple to the Holy Spirit,” line that sprung up in response to workplace vaccine policies. I’m mostly an amateur Bible scholar, but I understand it mostly stems from  1 Corinthians 6:19-20. In that verse, Paul says, “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you … therefore glorify God in your body.” The quote, however, is under the heading “Flee Sexual Immorality.” And Paul was giving this warning in the context of discussing why exploiting prostitutes is not really something God goes for. There is no mention of vaccines. Even so, judges often avoid weighing in on the details, merits, or use of out-of-context Bible verses that may be used to support a particular claim.

Instead, judges and defendant employers will often focus on whether the religious accommodation imposes an undue cost or burden. This is shorthand for more than an insignificant, minor hardship on the employer. Examples of such costs and burdens include workplace efficiency and workplace safety.

In our representation of a company sued over religious discrimination, we successfully argued the plaintiff should lose on the accommodation issue, as well as for other reasons. See Mathews v Lavida Massage Franchise Development, Inc. Case No. 13-cv-12587, where the Court granted our motion for summary judgment. Similarly but even more persuasively, the Mayo Clinic vaccine testing policy was made in the context of a worldwide virus that has killed millions. So its vaccine or testing requirement will likely be a challenge for employees like Ihde to overcome.

Use this link to contact Michigan attorney Jason Shinn if you have questions about this article or complying with Michigan or federal employment laws. Since 2001, Mr. Shinn has represented companies and individuals in religious discrimination claims, including obtaining dismissals of such claims for his business clients.