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Bristol Myers is sued for refusing COVID-19 vaccine religious exemptions

NEW YORK — Bristol Myers Squibb Co was sued on Wednesday by four employees who said the drugmaker has refused their requests for religious exemptions from getting COVID-19 vaccines, and threatened to fire them next Monday if they were not vaccinated.

The plaintiffs in the proposed class action filed in Manhattan federal court accused Bristol Myers of violating a federal civil rights law known as Title VII by “systematically manufacturing” reasons to refuse religious accommodations.

They said Bristol Myers is denying the sincerity of the religious beliefs of employees who express political beliefs about vaccines. The plaintiffs also said the company is ignoring sincere religious beliefs that are “inconvenient” to denial decisions, even as it accommodates employees with medical reasons not to be vaccinated.

New York-based Bristol Myers had no immediate comment, having yet to review the complaint.

Wednesday’s lawsuit came as the Biden administration pushes to require millions of American workers at large private employers to get vaccinated, a mandate also being challenged in court. Many health officials believe widespread vaccinations is the best way to help bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

The Bristol Myers plaintiffs, all with six-figure salaries, are Carrie Kefalas, a physician overseeing clinical trial risk management for drug development; biotechnologist John Lott; data integrity manager Jeremy Beer, and biologist Kamila Dubisz.

They objected to the company requiring them to fill out “inquisitorial” questionnaires about their reasons for religious exemptions.

According to the complaint, Bristol Myers rejected Kefalas’ request because it thought her beliefs were insincere and she might not accept mask-wearing or regular COVID-19 testing, and offered no reasons for the other rejections.

Bristol Myers referred in Kefalas’ rejection letter to several statements it said she made in public forums, including that the company’s vaccine requirement was a “communist, unamerican practice.”

The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction against Bristol Myers’ firing the plaintiffs or similarly-situated employees.

Bristol Myers ended 2020 with about 17,000 U.S. employees.

The case is Kefalas et al v Bristol-Myers Squibb Co, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 21-10204.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)