Local employee denied religious exemption from vaccination warrant and risks dismissal

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A long-time employee of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a company headquartered in Princeton, was recently told that his request for a religious exemption from the company’s vaccination mandate had been denied. The employee now faces impending dismissal for breach of mandate and is expected to be fired without severance pay in early January.

The ETS employee spoke to the Daily Princetonian on condition of anonymity, citing fear of retaliation for speaking out. They will be referred to as Doe for the purposes of this story.

ETS, established in 1947, develops and administers standardized assessments for Kindergarten to Grade 12 and higher education. The Princeton-based company has contracts with the federal government, as well as the College Board. This fall, the company implemented a vaccination mandate for all of its employees following President Biden’s Sept. 9 executive order requiring all federal contractors to ensure all workers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. ‘by January 18, 2022.

While ETS previously required that “essential” workers on site be vaccinated against COVID-19, an October 7 update extended the vaccination mandate to include all employees.

“After careful consideration of the Biden administration’s decree for federal contractors, ETS has decided to make COVID-19 vaccination a mandatory condition of employment for all company employees,” ETS Human wrote Resources in an October 7 ad obtained by the ‘Prince.’

Although the Federal Contractor’s Executive Order has been suspended by several federal courts, ETS is also subject to a separate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandate for large employers (100 employees or more). Both mandates provide that employees may seek “reasonable accommodation” based on “sincere religious beliefs, practices or observances”, in accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

After conflicting Federal Court rulings, OSHA’s mandate is expected to come into effect on January 10, but the Supreme Court announced on December 22 that it would hold a special hearing on January 7 to determine the legality of the grand’s tenure. employer. For the moment, these legal developments do not seem to have dissuaded ETS from pursuing its declared vaccination policy.

According to a company spokesperson, ETS believes that a vaccination mandate will make the workplace a safer environment for a possible return to operations in person.

“At some point, when it is safe, we look forward to welcoming staff to our campus and facilities and to do so safely, we believe that a vaccine requirement is necessary,” the carrier said. word. wrote in an email to ‘Prince.’ “We also know that as the world and our local communities struggle to fight COVID-19, scientists and doctors continue to remind us that the vaccine is our best defense. ”

This new mandate presented a serious conflict for Doe, they told the “Prince”, explaining that their religious beliefs were violated by the mandate. Doe’s religion, they said, opposes the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccine development.

COVID-19 vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cell lines. However, some development and production processes involved the use of cells initially isolated from aborted fetal tissue, making vaccines ethically controversial for some religious groups.

“When the official requirement came out, I felt like a prisoner,” Doe said.

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Although they acknowledged that there were several reasons they chose not to be vaccinated, Doe maintains that their main objection to the vaccine was based on religious grounds.

“I am a strong believer in my religion, and they are against the vaccine,” Doe explained. “Therefore, I feel compelled to follow what I’m taught. “

Doe said he filed a waiver request with ETS’s human resources department, providing the company with a written explanation of their religious beliefs and how they conflicted with the vaccine’s mandate.

But a few weeks later, Doe was told that their request for a religious exemption had been denied. In the statement to Doe, seen by the ‘Prince’, ETS explained that during his review of his exemption request, he could not confirm the “sincere[ity]Of their religious beliefs, and that after considering all possible accommodations, the company had determined that extending an exemption to Doe would inevitably impose “undue hardship” on the company.

The incident comes amid a larger national debate over the appropriate balance between public health concerns and employee rights. In a recent case, airline workers challenged a United Airlines policy that placed all unvaccinated workers on indefinite leave – even if the reason they refused the vaccine was based on religious or medical grounds. The company’s policy was upheld in a federal court. In October, the Supreme Court upheld a vaccination requirement against public health officials in Maine seeking an exemption.

The University currently requires vaccines for all students, faculty, and staff, but offers religious and medical exemptions for those who qualify. The policy has been updated to include a third recall on December 16.

The emergence of the highly contagious variant of omicron has only heightened this debate in recent weeks, raising questions as to whether a third dose of vaccine is needed to be considered “fully vaccinated” against COVID. -19.

According to Paul Frymer, a Princeton policy professor specializing in employment law, the process for determining whether employers have the right to deny religious exemptions is rarely clear.

“In the abstract, an employee can raise a religious objection to an employer requiring vaccination under employment equality laws, among other laws,” he wrote in an email to “Prince”. “The issue boils down to a number of factors, including whether the employee’s religious objection is considered sincere and whether the employer would be unduly hard pressed to grant the employee the exception. ”

The question could also come down to whether there is “reasonable accommodation the employer can make so that the employee allows them to continue working without being vaccinated,” Frymer explained.

Keith Whittington, another professor in the policy department, explained that private employers “have no direct constitutional obligation to provide religious accommodation to employees,” although “federal civil rights law prohibits discrimination on the part of employees. the workplace ”for reasons such as religious belief.

“Accordingly, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees when a company policy conflicts with sincere religious belief, as long as such accommodation does not place an undue burden on the employer,” Whittington wrote.

Doe disagreed with the implication that an exemption would disrupt the company’s productivity.

“It’s completely BS,” they said. “They are pushing the angle depending on what is convenient for them at the moment, because they were saying the opposite at the start of the pandemic and praising us for our ability to collaborate from a distance.”

Doe maintains that their job does not require them to be in person, pointing out that many ETS employees were working entirely remotely even before the pandemic.

Doe also argued that an accommodation would not necessarily put the health of other employees at risk. If they were allowed to continue working from home, they would not come into contact with their colleagues. Additionally, given a return to work in person, Doe said they wouldn’t necessarily be the only unvaccinated person present – contractors who work in company offices are not employed by ETS and therefore are not subject to the same vaccination mandate.

“It doesn’t make any logical sense,” Doe said. “A lot of factors just don’t add up. It is irritating and frustrating.

Doe said they believed there were other people in the same situation whose exemption requests were denied.

“ETS individually assesses all requests for medical and religious exemptions, as required by law,” wrote a spokesperson for ETS.

The “Prince” contacted several ETS employees with requests for interviews on the company’s vaccination policy, and none responded.

Doe told the “Prince” that they remained determined not to comply with the warrant. Despite their jobs, health and dental care, and lost severance packages at stake, they said they would not consider getting the shot.

“I hope the company can reconsider its position, as opposed to being a sheep,” Doe said.

The conspicuous end date for unvaccinated ETS employees is approaching January 5, 2022.

Tess Weinreich is a news and reporting contributor for The “Prince”. She can be reached at tw7353@princeton.edu or @TessWeinreich on Twitter.


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