UPDATE: PJI-Oregon Launches Offensive Against Employers Purging People of Faith from the Workplace

SALEM, OR – Pacific Justice Institute has launched a full-scale attack against employers in Oregon who discriminated against employees who sought religious exemptions from state mandates requiring that they be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Since late August, Ray D. Hacke, PJI’s Oregon-based staff attorney, has filed seven lawsuits against employers who either denied employees religious exemptions or subjected them to discrimination under the guise of “accommodating” their sincerely held religious beliefs. The employers PJI is suing include Asante Health Systems, which operates a chain of hospitals in southern Oregon; Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland; Cascadia Behavioral Health in Portland; Legacy Health, which operates multiple hospitals in the Portland metro area; Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles, located roughly 80 miles east of Portland; Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, which operates multiple hospitals in northern Oregon; and Springfield Public Schools in the Eugene area.

“Even in a pandemic, Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and equivalent state laws require that employers accommodate their employees’ religious beliefs, if at all possible,” Hacke said. “The employers we’re suing could have provided a variety of accommodations that would have enabled their employees to keep working while limiting the spread of COVID-19. These employers chose not to accommodate them, but to punish them for not abandoning their sincerely held beliefs concerning vaccination. For that, they should be held accountable.”

In August 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, pursuant to a mandate from Governor Kate Brown, the Oregon Health Authority (“OHA”) required all healthcare workers and public-school employees in the state to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The OHA did, however, allow employers to grant exemptions to employees who could not, in good conscience, take the COVID-19 vaccines then available in the U.S. market for religious reasons.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of employees across the state thus submitted requests to their employers for religious exemptions. Their employers either flat-out denied the employees’ requests for reasons not involving undue hardship – the only lawful reason for which an employer can refuse to accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs pursuant to Title VII – or placed them on indefinite unpaid leave as their “accommodation.” Placement on leave was not a true accommodation, but a suspension aimed at financially pressuring employees into getting vaccinated.

Many of the employees who were denied accommodations were ultimately fired for adhering to their religious convictions concerning COVID-19 vaccines. “The pandemic served as a convenient excuse for healthcare employers, public school districts and other employers to get rid of employees whose religious beliefs they found unacceptable,” PJI President Brad Dacus said. “Unfortunately, this is just another continuation of purging people of faith from the workplace. PJI is committed to standing up and fighting such purging across America. Employment discrimination laws at the state and federal levels exist specifically to protect people of faith from having to choose between adhering to their sincerely held beliefs and remaining employed. PJI is firmly committed to obtaining justice for people of faith who have endured financial hardship because they were fired or suspended for refusing to abandon their sincerely held beliefs. We are working hard not just in Oregon, but nationwide to ensure that their employers do not get away with unlawful discrimination.”