Skip to content

News & Knowledge

Employee Religious-Exemption Protections Safeguarded in COVID-19 Discrimination Claim


Employee Religious-Exemption Protections Safeguarded in COVID-19 Discrimination Claim

Key Takeaways:

  • Evidence of active practice in a religious sect, coupled with cited scripture, weighs strongly in support of a finding that an employee’s beliefs are religious in nature for determining whether an employee is entitled to a religious accommodation under Title VII

  • Generally, courts are not situated to be the decision maker regarding whether beliefs are religious in nature or sincerely held, as required to implicate Title VII protections

  • Determining whether an employee is entitled to a religious exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine warrants a fact-specific analysis of the employee’s job duties to determine whether such an exemption would cause undue hardship on the business

On January 25, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s (CHOP) motion to dismiss plaintiff Donald Glover’s complaint in Donald Glover v. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 2024 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13166 (E.D.P.A. Jan. 25, 2024).

There, Glover filed suit against CHOP alleging it failed to accommodate his religion by granting him an exemption from its requirement that employees obtain a COVID-19 vaccine, and discriminated against him by terminating him after he refused the vaccine. Glover served as a supervisor in CHOP’s Biomedical Engineering Department and sought an exemption from CHOP’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate because of his religion. In his exemption requests, he included, among other things, Bible verses, and indicated his belief the vaccine was unclean because aborted fetal cells were used in the development of the vaccine (he opposed abortion as a sin and gravely wrong).

Notably, he included other objections to the vaccine that were non-religious, such as that it was “made at warp speed,” “is an experiment and risk benefit is not favorable,” and “is unnecessary because other treatments exist, such as hydroxychloroquine, and the low fatality rates of COVID-19 mean that there should be no need for anyone to worry about dying from the coronavirus.” CHOP ultimately denied the request, concluding that Glover did not “sufficiently demonstrate that the sincerely held religious belief prohibited vaccination.”

CHOP filed a motion to dismiss Glover’s complaint alleging that he failed to plead sufficient facts to show that he had a sincerely held religious belief that conflicted with a job requirement. Specifically, it concluded that Glover’s beliefs about the use of aborted fetal cells in the vaccine and his body being “God’s temple,” especially bolstered by citations to Bible verses, are religious in nature and not isolated moral teachings. The court also made clear that it is not a judicial function to be an arbiter of scripture interpretation, especially at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Finally, the court explained that some of Glover’s reasons being philosophical, secular, or medical in nature do not matter, so long as he also had sufficient religious reasons for his objections.

This decision provides some important guidance for how employers should handle employees claiming religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine and other future vaccinations. It confirms that the standard is still broad for interpreting whether an employee’s claimed beliefs are religious in nature or sincerely held.  Furthermore, the courts continue to view this issue as a delicate question which is typically not within judicial competence. Thus, courts will likely continue to grant significant deference to employees seeking religious exemptions.

However, the opinion does not address the second half of the analysis, i.e., whether the requested accommodation (in this case, not obtaining the COVID-19 vaccine) poses an undue hardship on the business. This is a particularly important consideration in the context of patient care (it is unclear from the opinion whether Glover provided patient care in his role with CHOP).  This issue requires a fact-specific, case-by-case analysis, focusing on among other things, the employee’s job duties, nature of the employer’s business, and whether other accommodations can be provided.

Goldberg Segalla’s Employment and Labor attorneys are ready to assist employers in handling requests for religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccines, as well as any other religious accommodation request under applicable employment laws.

If you have any questions about this development or how it impacts your business, please contact: