Federal lawsuit claims BlueCross violated employees' rights to religious freedom

Staff photo by Matt Hamilton/ Chattanooga resident Jerry Spriggs rolls up his sleeve at Mt. Canaan Church on Sept. 23. BlueCross BlueSheild of Tennessee partnered with the church and pharmacists with Walgreens administered flu and COVID-19 vaccines.

Three former employees of Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee have filed a federal lawsuit against the company claiming they were terminated for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine and the company declined to extend them a religious exemption.

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"Defendant decided that unvaccinated employees -- even those who defendant admits have sincerely held religious objections to the vaccine -- were to be terminated from their employment despite their sincerely held religious beliefs and the reasonableness of their accommodation requests," the lawsuit filed this month said.


The complaint was filed by Matt Abernathy of Nashville, Heather Hutton of Bristol, Tennessee, and Kerrie Ingle of Soddy-Daisy, who say they were fired in 2021. They are seeking class action status to represent more than 50 people they say were terminated in a similar fashion.

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"Many submitted requests for religious exemptions and reasonable accommodations," the plaintiffs' legal team said in a news release. "Rather than provide a reasonable accommodation such as a telecommuting option ... or a testing option, BCBST's response was that you have 30 days to change your deeply held religious convictions and get the shot, find a new job, or be fired."

BlueCross did not respond to the Chattanooga Times Free Press request for comment.

The lawsuit did not specify any monetary compensation sought from the company, and the Knoxville-based attorneys for the plaintiffs, Jesse D. Nelson and Clint J. Coleman, could not be reached for comment by phone and did not respond to inquiries via email.

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The lawsuit, however, said the company essentially asked the employees to choose between their beliefs and their job.

"As to those who chose their faith, defendant terminated their employment," the lawsuit said. "In so doing, defendant violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against plaintiffs based on their religious beliefs."

The lawsuit claims the former employees said they believed the COVID-19 vaccine was created with "fetal cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue and would be sinful to interject such products into their bodies. They believe a Christian's body being surrendered to God is a form of spiritual worship. (See, e.g., Romans 12:1)."

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.