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Horton Law Firm Blog Religious Accommodations Under Title VII for SC Employees

 | Religious Accommodations Under Title VII for SC Employees

A recent federal court decision out of Massachusetts dealt with the limits of religious accommodations under Title VII for COVID-19 vaccines. If that feels like a PTSD-infused blast from the past, it certainly is. I last wrote about the COVID 19 vaccines and religious exemptions in September and November of 2021 under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Between those articles and a few interviews on local news stations to talk about the vaccine mandates, I was pretty much inundated with calls from employees wanting to seek an exemption from the mandate, whether based on religious grounds or medical/disability grounds.

Standard for Granting or Refusing Religious Accommodations in South Carolina

For South Carolina employees, the religious accommodation issues comes into play normally when around work schedules and religious garb. I wrote last fall about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that clarified what the EMPLOYER must show in terms of undue hardship before the employer can deny an employee’s religious accommodation request. That case dealt specifically with a schedule change for an employee who required Sunday off to attend worship services. Other cases, like this one from 2015, dealt with a hijab (religious head covering for certain Muslims). The current standard is that a company has to prove a substantial hardship, based on specific supporting facts, in order to deny an accommodation. This raised the bar on what the company must show and makes it easier for an employee to get a religious accommodation.

Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Case Dismissed by the Court

But back to the COVID 19 vaccine case. In Rodrique v. Hearst Communications, an employee refused to take the new vaccine, despite the company’s mandate that he do so. He objected on the basis that the vaccine was a “biblical evil” because he objected to the ingestion of artificial or man-made substances developed using fetal cells. Normally, a court won’t delve too deeply into the claimed religious beliefs, as that could result in a court attempting to decide the validity of a religion, which is not something the courts should be doing. But the courts will look to see whether the claimed beliefs originate from a religion or from some other set of values or beliefs. For example, belief in essential oils as a cure for cancer and/or having friends is more of a personal belief than a belief stemming from a religious conviction. Beliefs surrounding “fundamental and ultimate questions of having to do with deep and imponderable matters” are more typically found to accompany a religious belief.

In this case, though, the court determined that the employee’s objections were not based on actual religious beliefs and was more of a “personal medical judgment about the necessity of COVID-19 vaccination rigged out with religious verbiage.” The court noted that the employee regularly took medications that he viewed as necessary, even though they were artificial and man-made, and he also admitted to taking medications and vaccinations in the past without concern regarding fetal cell usage in the development. (All of these are questions I recall asking during consults with SC employees in 2021.) The court dismissed the employee’s complaint in that case, but it may still go up on appeal.

What Should South Carolina Employees Be Aware Of Regarding Religious Accommodations under Title VII?

For South Carolina employees, the issue of COVID-19 vaccinations has mostly died down. But moving forward, employees may still face concerns about a company’s willingness to provide religious accommodations under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. SC employees should not delay in seeking a religious accommodation once the need arises. Contact your HR department, preferably in writing (and keep a copy of the email), and lay out the concern and the requested accommodation, whether it’s a scheduling issue that conflicts with worship services, or it’s a clothing or hair issue that impacts religious garb (hijabs, turbans, etc.). Be open to engaging in a conversation with the company about how an accommodation can be reached, and try to document those exchanges in email.

If the company refuses to grant a reasonable accommodation request for religious reasons, then you can file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for a violation of the your rights under Title VII. If you have an attorney, your attorney can file directly with the EEOC and avoid the months-long delays that unrepresented employees are facing in just getting an initial intake interview.

I regularly represent employees throughout South Carolina for employment issues, including religious accommodations under Title VII. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or concerns.

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