Conway Regional

Attorney Brian Vandiver said Conway Regional had preferred parking for vaccinated employees at one point, but the signs have since been taken down.

A lawsuit has been filed against Conway Regional Health System over religious exemptions and the hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. As more businesses continue to enforce vaccine requirements, it could be the start of a new trend in Arkansas.

The lawsuit names six plaintiffs, both former and current employees, who say their religion forbids them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine. The suit was filed last month in order to prevent the hospital from enforcing its vaccine mandate in their cases.

According to the lawsuit, Conway Regional employees must receive the COVID-19 vaccine or face termination. The hospital did offer a religious exemption, but some were rejected, according to attorney Brian Vandiver, who filed the suit.

“In a lot of respects, you have employees that have given, in many instances, decades of their life of service to a company. All of a sudden, these employers are treating these workers no different than a rancher treats cattle,” he said. “They’ve either been told they can’t have the exemption, or they’ve been granted the exemption and have since been segregated and stigmatized in ways that we believe are illegal.”

Vandiver said they’re alleging various claims under the Arkansas Civil Rights Act for failure to accommodate, discrimination, and retaliation because of their religious exemptions. For example, he said they were met with these signs giving preferred parking to vaccinated employees, that have since been removed.

“It’s not the employer’s job or role to question someone’s individual faith,” he said. “This is an issue of civil rights and religious liberty, and Arkansas has a strong background in defending religious liberty.”

Back in September, the hospital came under scrutiny for requiring some of the employees seeking religious exemptions to sign an attestation form, affirming that their belief is consistent and true – and that they wouldn’t use other products like Tylenol and Tums that also used fetal cells during testing and development.

“The reason that I chose Conway Regional as my first lawsuit is because they’ve been one of the employers that has pushed the envelope like that, in ways that are arguably illegal,” Vandiver said.

Vandiver said both OSHA and other federal guidance require reasonable accommodations for those who choose not to get vaccinated based on religious beliefs. Options include weekly testing, social distancing and masking, and working from home when appropriate.

“These types of accommodation requests really are a case-by-case basis, they’re supposed to be an individualized conversation between the employer and the employee,” he said. “In a lot of situations, we’re seeing more of just kind of cookie cutter, rubber stamp denials of accommodation request, and that’s not the way the law is supposed to work.”

However, some legal experts say employers can decline to reasonably accommodate if the accommodation would lead to undue hardships. In some cases, it will be up to how the law is interpreted.

Despite an appeals court pressing pause on President Biden’s vaccine mandate for large businesses, Vandiver knows this won’t be the last lawsuit filed in Arkansas.

Vandiver encourages others who feel their religious beliefs are not being heard to seek counsel, guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and save all documentation.

“Employers in this state have really put employees, citizens of our state, in a kind of a Hobson’s choice to choose between their faith and providing for their families,” he said.

The Conway Regional suit seeks unspecified damages for lost wages and emotional distress. KATV reached out to Conway Regional for a statement, but they were unable to comment on pending litigation.

Conway Regional was served on Oct. 21, and has 30 days to answer.

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