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RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS The Vaccine And The Holy Spirit: Suit Addresses Employer Obligations, Religious Objections, Mandatory COVID-19 Shots

“Mr. Lawton is a devout and practicing Messianic Jew, who sincerely believes that … the Holy Spirit resides in his body, and that taking the vaccine will offend and otherwise harm the Holy Spirit,” the suit says.

July 20, 2021 at 02:11 PM

(Charles Toutant, excerpted from the New Jersey Law Journal )

A suit against a New Jersey health care facility will test an employer’s authority to require COVID-19 vaccinations when a worker objects for religious reasons.

Plaintiff Kenya Lawton was fired from his job after he declined to receive a coronavirus vaccine, according to the suit he filed Monday in Middlesex County Superior Court. He says his employer disregarded his claim that receiving the vaccine contradicts the teachings of his Messianic Jewish faith.

As some employers require their staff to have COVID-19 vaccines, suits like Lawton’s could become a regular event.

“Mr. Lawton is a devout and practicing Messianic Jew, who sincerely believes that … the Holy Spirit resides in his body, and that taking the vaccine will offend and otherwise harm the Holy Spirit,” the suit says. “As a result. Mr. Lawton has a sincerely held religious objection to receiving the vaccine.”

Lawton, a painter at Summit Oaks Hospital in Summit, was dismissed Dec. 31, 2020, after the inpatient mental health facility announced employees who could not provide proof of vaccination could no longer work there.

Lawton submitted a letter from his priest Zabach Kani at the House of Israel congregation, seeking an exemption from the immunization rule.

But the hospital’s management “utterly refused or otherwise failed to engage in any interactive process with the plaintiff to determine whether a reasonable accommodation could be made for plaintiff’s sincerely held religious exemption,” the suit claims.

Dueling Statutes?

On May 12, plaintiffs counsel wrote to Lawton’s employer to complain that his client’s termination violated the NJ Law Against Discrimination.

On June 16, counsel for Summit Oaks replied to say that the company does not recognize religious exemptions, citing the recent NJ Legislation regarding mandatory flu vaccinations, pursuant to statute.

The issue then became fodder for litigation.

Summit Oaks is obligated under New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination to provide accommodations to those who decline to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons, according to Schorr.

But Summit Oaks took the position that a newly enacted statute governing flu shots in health care facilities absolved it of any obligation to accommodate religion, said Schorr.

The statute, N.J.S.A. 26:2H-18.79, discusses health-related exemptions to the mandatory flu shot policy but is silent on religion. Summit Oaks has accommodated numerous employees who declined the COVID-19 vaccination for medical reasons, but refuses to accommodate Lawton’s objection.

Other health care employers similarly interpreted the flu shot statute to bar religious accommodation but employers reversed their position on religious accommodation.

This is the first time any employer has said the state of New Jersey can no longer accommodate religious beliefs. The New Jersey Law Against Discrimination is very clear. You accommodate a religious objection the same way you accommodate a medical exception.

Under the circumstances, an employer must meet with the employee to discuss their needs and attempt to arrive at a reasonable accommodation.  But there’s no guarantee of an accommodation.

The CEO of Summit Oaks, Miguel Fernandez, did not respond to a request for comment. The hospital’s parent company, Universal Health Services of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, also did not respond to a request for comment.

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