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Local employee denied religious exemption to vaccine mandate, faces termination

<h5>A welcome sign for ETS’ Princeton Headquarters, depicted in 2011.</h5>
<h6>“Educational Testing Service welcome sign as seen from Rosedale Road” by Mduchnowski / <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Educational_Testing_Service_-_Welcome_Sign.jpg" target="_self"><u>CC BY-SA</u></a></h6>
A welcome sign for ETS’ Princeton Headquarters, depicted in 2011.
“Educational Testing Service welcome sign as seen from Rosedale Road” by Mduchnowski / CC BY-SA

A longtime employee of the Educational Testing Service (ETS), a Princeton-headquartered company, was recently informed that their request for a religious exemption from the company’s vaccine mandate had been denied. The employee may face imminent termination for failure to comply with the mandate and could be let go without severance in early January.

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

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ETS, established in 1947, develops and administers standardized assessments for K-12 and higher education. The Princeton-based company has contracts with the federal government, as well as the College Board. This fall, the corporation implemented a vaccine 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 Jan. 18, 2022.

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

“After a careful review of the Biden administration’s Executive Order for federal contractors, ETS has decided to make vaccination for COVID-19 a mandatory condition of employment for all corporate employees,” wrote ETS Human Resources in a Oct. 7 announcement obtained by the ‘Prince.’

Although the federal contractor executive order has been stayed by several federal courts, ETS is also subject to a separate Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) vaccine mandate for large employers (100 or more employees). Both mandates provide that employees may seek a “reasonable accommodation” based on “sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, or observances,” consistent with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

After conflicting federal court rulings, the OSHA mandate remains slated to take effect on Jan. 10 — but the Supreme Court announced on Dec. 22 that it would hold a special hearing on Jan. 7 to determine the legality of the large employer mandate. For now, these legal developments do not appear to have deterred ETS from pursuing its stated vaccine policy.

According to a company spokesperson, ETS believes a vaccine mandate will make the workplace a safer environment for an eventual return to in-person operations.

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“At some point, when it is safe to do so, we look forward to welcoming staff back to our campus and facilities and in order to do that safely we believe a vaccine requirement is necessary,” the spokesperson wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “We also know that as the world and our local communities have struggled to battle 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 infringed upon by the mandate. Doe’s religion, among other concerns, opposes the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the vaccine’s development.

COVID-19 vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cell lines. However, certain processes in development and production involved the use of cells that were originally isolated from aborted fetal tissue, thus making the vaccines ethically controversial for certain 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 multiple reasons why they chose not to get vaccinated, Doe maintains that their primary objection to the vaccine was based on religious grounds.

“I’m a devout believer of my religion, and they’re against the vaccine,” Doe explained. “Therefore I feel obligated to follow what I’m being taught.”

Doe said they filed a request for an exemption with the ETS Human Resources department, providing the company with a written explanation of their religious beliefs and how they conflicted with the vaccine mandate.

A few weeks later, Doe was informed that their request for a religious exemption had been denied and that the company would not be able to accommodate them.

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

The University currently mandates vaccines for all students, faculty, and staff, but does offer religious and medical exemptions to those who qualify. The policy was updated to include a third booster shot on Dec. 16.

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

According to Paul Frymer, a politics professor at Princeton who specializes in labor law, the process of determining whether employers have the right to deny religious exemptions is rarely clear-cut.

“In the abstract, an employee can raise a religious objection to an employer requiring vaccination under Equal Employment laws among other laws,” he wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “The issue comes down to a variety of factors, including whether the employee’s objection on religious grounds is considered sincere and whether the employer would suffer undue hardship in granting the exception for the employee.”

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

Keith Whittington, another professor in the politics department, explained that private employers “do not have a direct constitutional requirement to provide religious accommodations to employees,” although “the federal civil rights act prohibits workplace discrimination” on grounds including religious belief.

“As a consequence, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees when a company policy conflicts with a sincerely held religious belief, so long as that accommodation does not impose an undue burden on the employer,” Whittington wrote.

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

“That’s complete BS,” they said. “They push the angle based on whatever suits them at the moment because they were stating the complete opposite when the pandemic started and praising us for our ability to collaborate remotely.”

Doe maintains that their job does not require them to be in person, pointing to the fact that many employees at ETS worked fully remotely even before the pandemic.

Doe also argued that an accommodation would not necessarily put other employees’ health at risk. If allowed to continue working from home, they would not come into contact with coworkers. Furthermore, given a return to in-person work, unvaccinated workers may still be in the office space — contractors who work in the company’s offices are not employed by ETS, and thus are not subject to the same vaccine mandate.

“That makes no logical sense,” Doe said. “A lot of factors just don’t add up. It’s irritating and frustrating.”

Doe said they believe that there are others in the same position whose requests for exemption were denied.

“ETS evaluates all medical and religious exemption requests individually, as the law requires,” wrote an ETS spokesperson.

The ‘Prince’ reached out to several ETS employees with requests for interviews on the company’s vaccination policy, and none responded.

Doe told the ‘Prince’ in early and mid-December that at the time they remained determined not to comply with the mandate. Despite their employment, health and dental care, and forfeited severance money on the line, they said at the time that they were not considering getting vaccinated.

“Hopefully the company may reconsider their stance, as opposed to being sheep,” Doe said.

The ostensible termination date for unvaccinated employees at ETS approaches on Jan. 5, 2022.

Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the approximate date when interviews with Doe were conducted. One detail about Doe’s interactions with ETS Human Resources has also been removed to protect Doe’s anonymity.

Tess Weinreich is a news and features contributor for the 'Prince.' She can be reached at tw7353@princeton.edu or at @TessWeinreich on Twitter.

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