Blue Cross ex-employees file lawsuits over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The lawsuit alleges BCBSM asked whether those seeking a religious exemption took aspirin, Sudafed, Tums or Tylenol to prove their “sincerely-held religious belief” didn’t hold up.

The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were tested using embryonic kidney cells. Acetaminophen is also tested on that same line of cells pulled from aborted fetuses in the 1970s.

Many religious exemption requests during the pandemic came from people involved in certain sects of Catholicism or other religions that morally object to the use of embryonic stem cells in any fashion.

The Vatican publicly supported the use of COVID-19 vaccines but has said the choice to vaccinate should be voluntary.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers only have to accommodate religious beliefs that are sincerely held. That definition is broad and it’s generally accepted that all religious exemptions sought by employees are valid.

But under the EEOC, companies are allowed to question those beliefs if the employee has behaved in a manner in opposition to those beliefs or if an exemption is sought for secular reasons. Companies can also ask for appropriate documentation from the employees’ religious leaders.

Hurwitz said the employees have a case because BCBSM allowed for some religious accommodations and not others.

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“They conducted 10- to 15-minute interviews in a totally arbitrary way,” Hurwitz said. “We’ve listened to interviews of those granted accommodations and those denied, and we can’t figure out why the company granted some and not others. The whole process is devoid of any real formula and metric.”

COVID vaccine mandate lawsuits have spiked in recent months as the EEOC approvals come streaming in — the process can take up to 10 months — after most employer-led mandates went into effect in late 2021.

As of September, there were more than 750 mandate lawsuits against employers, according to The National Law Review. Vaccine lawsuits, however, have rarely been successful. There are no known successful lawsuits yet over COVID vaccine mandates.

Some employers have settled out of court, however. In August, NorthShore University Health System agreed to pay a $10.3 million settlement to end a class-action lawsuit by 14 employees who were denied a religious exemption to the system’s vaccine policy.

Some lawsuits against employers’ flu vaccine requirements have succeeded in the past.

In 2016, Saint Vincent Health Center in Pennsylvania was ordered to pay $300,000 in back pay and compensatory damages to six former employees that were denied religious exemptions to the flu vaccine.

The EEOC alleged the health center denied all religious exemptions but allowed for medical exemptions, violating Title VII.

All of the cases against BCBSM are in the early stages of litigation, and it’s unclear when an outcome would be reached.

This story first appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business.

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