U.S. sues Pensacola furniture store, insurance company, over vaccine mandates

The federal government has filed lawsuits against two companies for refusing to grant religious exemptions to workplace COVID vaccine mandates, including one case involving a worker in Florida.

That matter involves an assistant manager at a Hank’s Furniture store in Pensacola, which fired the worker on Oct. 31, 2021, after rejecting her request for a religious accommodation under federal law.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation banning vaccine mandates in Florida that Nov. 18, one day after the Legislature passed the law.

The other case involves United Healthcare Services Inc., which refused a religious accommodation for a remote worker who didn’t even engage in face-to-face contact with coworkers, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The agency filed the Hank’s complaint on Sept. 19 in the Pensacola Division of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Hank’s is headquarted in Arkansas. It filed the United Healthcare case that same day in the Southern District of Ohio. Both cases invoke Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

“Federal law requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs if reasonable accommodation can be made without causing undue burden to the business,” EEOC Birmingham District Director Bradley Anderson said in a written statement. His office’s jurisdiction includes the Florida Panhandle.

Marsha Rucker, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Birmingham District, said, also in a written statement, “This suit should remind employers they must communicate with employees requesting accommodation for religious beliefs and try to accommodate those beliefs whenever reasonably possible. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Groff v. DeJoy is illustrative of this point.”

In that case, decided on June 29, the justices made it easier to bring workplace religious discrimination cases. Previously, an employer that had to “bear more than a de minimis cost” to offer an accommodation would be deemed to suffer “undue hardship” justifying refusal. The new standard requires the employer to demonstrate “substantial” increased costs.

Complaints rose sharply

Liberty Counsel, which litigates civil-liberties cases, put out a press release highlighting the two cases.

“Federal law requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs unless the employer can show that doing so will result in an undue hardship,” said Mat Staver, founder and CEO of the organization.

“The timing of these lawsuits following the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Groff v. Dejoy decision means that there is now a higher bar for employers to meet when denying a religious accommodation. People should not have to choose between their faith and their job,” Staver added.

According to its records, the EEOC fielded 13,814 religious discrimination complaints during fiscal year 2022, an increase from 2,111 complaints in the previous year.

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