Religious Relief: Eighth Circuit Decides Employees’ Failure-to-Accommodate Claims Can be Heard Under Minnesota Law (US)Squire Patton Boggson June 24, 2024 at 2:03 pm Employment Law Worldview

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Squire Patton Boggs’ Summer Associate Sam Triplett discusses a recent federal appeals court decision addressing the scope of Minnesota’s employment discrimination statute.

Competing Beliefs

The tensions between science and religion started long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Just ask Galileo. However, the pandemic brought this struggle to the forefront, especially in the workplace. At a time when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other leading scientific research institutions strongly suggested getting vaccinated, private employers had to decide how to handle COVID-19 vaccination policies for their employees. Some of those decisions resulted in lawsuits, and even though the pandemic is thankfully mostly a memory, some of those lawsuits are still working their way through the courts. That includes a recent decision from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (which covers Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and North Dakota) which addressed whether the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) allows an employee to bring a failure-to-accommodate claim when their employer denies them an accommodation for their religious beliefs.

Summary

In Ringhofer v. Mayo Clinic, Ambulance, several employees sued their employer, The Mayo Clinic (“Mayo”), under both Title VII and the MHRA for failing to accommodate their religious beliefs. Like many healthcare employers during the pandemic, Mayo adopted a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for its employees, exempting only those employees who had medical or other issues whom Mayo instead required to undergo weekly testing to monitor the virus’s spread. In the lawsuit, five employees challenged Mayo’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate claiming that their religious beliefs prevented them from complying with the mandatory vaccination policy, specifically, that taking the vaccine conflicted with their scriptural understanding that the “body is a temple” and forced them to be injected with a vaccine that was produced with or tested on aborted fetal cell lines. The employees argued that the MHRA, which prohibits religious-based discrimination, also requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.

In 2023, the District Court for the District of Minnesota dismissed the employees’ claims, holding in part that the MHRA did not provide relief for an employer’s alleged failure to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit reversed and remanded the lower court’s decision, explaining that the MHRA could be read broadly enough to require employers to accommodate religious beliefs, and therefore provides a cause of action for failure-to-accommodate claims.

Failure-to-Accommodate Claims Are Viable under the MHRA

The court’s decision to broaden the MHRA to include failure-to-accommodate claims clarifies previously unsettled Minnesota employment law. There can be a substantial practical difference for employers between overtly discriminating against an employee and failing to accommodate an employee’s beliefs. Take the Ringhofer facts as an example—mandating employee vaccinations and testing wasn’t an attempt to discriminate against certain groups of people, but rather was an attempt to stem the pandemic. Mayo’s policies did not on their face suggest any intentional, overt act of discrimination because the policies applied to all employees, but the Eighth Circuit held that the MHRA allows employees to claim that an employer discriminated against them by failing to accommodate their religious beliefs.

Although this decision expands the scope of the MHRA, the Court’s decision left undefined the extent to which employers must accommodate their employees’ beliefs. However, drawing from Title VII, the federal law that prohibits religious-based discrimination and requires employers to provide accommodations for employees’ religious beliefs, the contours should be relatively easy to discern in light of last year’s US Supreme Court decision in Groff v. DeJoy. In that case, a unanimous Court held that an employer must show that a requested religious accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer to justify denying the request; see our blog post here). It’s logical to presume that a Minnesota court would impose a similar test as imposed by federal law.

Uniformity in Religious Beliefs

The Eighth Circuit emphasized that religious beliefs need not be uniform across members of a particular religious group in order to be sincere or in order to mandate accommodation. Here, for example, other Christian employees who worked at Mayo had no issue with vaccination, a point on which the lower court heavily relied. But the Eighth Circuit insisted that the plaintiffs could maintain a claim for alleged failure to accommodate their religious beliefs even if their views were in the minority within their own religious group.

Takeaways for Minnesota Employers

The Ringhofer decision does not mean that asserting a religious belief will act as a talisman against employer vaccination policies. What it does mean is that Minnesota employees can state a viable claim under the MHRA when their employers fail to accommodate their religious beliefs, barring proof of an undue hardship, thus aligning state law in Minnesota with obligations already imposed by federal law.

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