EEOC Report: COVID-19 vaccine-related employment disputes fuel surge of religious discrimination claims

by | Jul 27, 2023

If you closely follow religious liberty news like I do, you know that, in the past couple of years, we’ve seen a continuing stream of headlines about cases filed by employees who were denied a religious accommodation from an employer’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement. In the past month, for example,

  • A New York trial court upheld the Department of Education’s denial of a public school teacher’s accommodation request (In re Matyas v. Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York). The court rejected religious freedom arguments, concluding that the mandate was not “premised upon religion.”
  • A federal court in Pennsylvania allowed a nurse’s religious discrimination claim under Title VII to continue (Leek v. Lehigh Valley Health Network), finding some of her objections to her employer’s vaccine mandate to be religious in nature and rejecting the argument that her views were political and not religious.
  • A Missouri federal court declined to dismiss Free Exercise and Title VII claims from 41 teachers and staff in St. Louis who challenged the denial of their accommodation requests from the vaccine mandate (Brandon v. Board of Education of the City of St. Louis). The court centered its ruling on the plaintiffs’ assertion that the denials came when the pandemic was no longer an emerging, rapidly developing public health crisis.
  • A federal court in New York denied the First Amendment claims of an I.T. worker in a health care facility whose request for an accommodation from the state’s vaccination requirement was rejected (Algarin v. NYC Health + Hospitals Corp.). The court emphasized that breaking a state rule would be an undue burden on the employer.

But I wasn’t expecting the enormous increase in religious discrimination charges filed with the EEOC in 2022 — there were 13,814 announced by the agency in its annual report. That’s a 554% increase over 2021’s total of 2,111. Prior to 2022, the most active year in religion claims of the past 15 years was 2011 (with 4,151). From 2007-2021, religious discrimination claims made up 3.4% – 4.2% of charges filed. In 2022, they comprised 18.8% of the total employment discrimination charges filed during the year.

The report suggests in a footnote that a “significant increase in vaccine-related charges filed on the basis of religion” is responsible for the spike in religion cases generally. Either way, the data validates the inescapable feeling that religion is an expanding, dangerous faultline along the social, political and cultural fractures we face as a nation. The vaccine-related claims may diminish over the next couple of years, but this number bears watching for the role religion plays in our workplace disputes.