Vaccination Refusal on Religious Grounds Leads to Wrongful Termination

The availability and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, combined with the deadliness of the disease itself, have led many organizations to mandate the protective measure for employees. Our firm does not oppose the COVID-19 vaccine. We support measures to get everyone vaccinated, but employers must recognize and accommodate individuals who have a  sincerely-held religious belief or bona fide medical exemption.

Under the State of New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination, employers are required to reasonably accommodate workers’ sincerely-held religious objections..  Despite the existence of these laws, a New Jersey mental health and substance abuse treatment center recently terminated an employee whose sincerely held religious objection prevented him from receiving a flu vaccination that the company required. Our firm is representing the painter, charging the organization with wrongful termination on the basis of religion, failure to provide reasonable religious accommodation, and other violations

The complaint and jury demand were filed on behalf of Kenya D. Lawton, a per diem painter who began working for Summit Oaks Hospital in Summit, New Jersey in October of 2019. Naming the hospital, the Delaware corporation that owns the hospital, and other individuals as defendants, Mr. Lawton’s claim explains that as a “devout and practicing Messianic Jew” he has a sincerely held religious objection to receiving the flu vaccine, and that in 2020 his employer adopted a flu vaccination policy requiring all employees to receive a flu vaccination. Despite the state’s required accommodation for employees with sincerely held religious objections, the policy only provided for employees with medical exemptions. In December of 2020 the company issued an ultimatum to Mr. Lawton and Summit Oaks’ employees, and Mr. Lawton responded by submitting an Immunization Exemption Letter from his religious leader, but the company refused to work with Mr. Lawton to find an accommodation and fired him on December 31st, 2020.

The Complaint alleges that the company made simple accommodations available for employees with medical exemptions by requiring them to wear a mask at all times. The same accommodation would have been acceptable to Mr. Lawton, but he was fired because his request was based on religious rather than medical needs. Though the company has argued that they do not recognize religious objections and that they believe that New Jersey statute 26:2H-18.79 “explicitly does not provide for religious exemptions for flu vaccinations.” We believe that they are both factually and legally incorrect and that the statute not only doesn’t explicitly prohibit accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs, but also doesn’t mention religious exemptions at all and does not invalidate or overrule the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination’s requirement of reasonable accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs.

If you have been similarly discriminated against as a result of a deeply held religious belief or being a member of any other class protected under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, we are here to help. Contact our office today to set up a time to discuss your situation.

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