Tennessee Woman Wins $687,000 Settlement After Being Fired for Declining COVID-19 Vaccine on Religious Grounds

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A Tennessee woman was awarded nearly $700,000 in a settlement after a federal jury agreed that her termination from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST) was unjust. The company had fired her for not adhering to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which she opposed due to her religious beliefs.

Tanja Benton, a former biostatistical research scientist at BCBST, challenged her 2022 dismissal in federal court, asserting that her refusal to receive the vaccine was rooted in a sincere religious conviction. The jury awarded Benton more than $177,000 in lost wages, $10,000 for emotional distress, and an additional $500,000 in punitive damages, recognizing the merits of her claim.

Benton’s tenure at BCBST, which began in 2005, was marked by minimal in-person interaction, as her responsibilities mainly required her to engage with only 10 to 12 clients annually. She also noted that she had been working remotely for a year and a half during the pandemic without any issues until the vaccine policy was implemented.

The pivotal point in Benton’s argument revolved around her belief, based on personal research, that all COVID-19 vaccines were connected to aborted fetal cell lines. Benton stated that receiving the vaccine would contravene her religious principles and dishonor her faith.

Despite her remote working setup and limited client interaction, BCBST denied Benton’s request for a religious exemption. She was informed that her position allowed no exceptions to the vaccine mandate and was advised to seek other employment if she could not comply with the company policy.

BCBST has previously stated that its vaccine requirement was crucial for safeguarding the health and safety of its employees and the communities they serve, particularly vulnerable groups. The company expressed gratitude for the services provided by its past employees, including Benton, recognizing their contributions to community health.

Following the jury’s decision, the case has highlighted ongoing debates around workplace vaccine mandates and religious accommodations. Legal experts suggest that this verdict could influence how businesses address similar exemption requests under federal employment laws in the future.

Benton’s case serves as a significant instance of the legal challenges faced by employees and employers in navigating public health policies and personal religious convictions during the pandemic. Legal analysts emphasize the importance of employers carefully considering individual circumstances and potential exemptions to avoid conflicts that could lead to legal disputes.

The settlement in Benton’s favor underscores the complexities that arise when public health requirements intersect with individual rights and religious freedoms. As the pandemic continues to influence workplace policies, more businesses might face similar challenges, making it imperative for them to develop clear, fair, and legally sound policies regarding health mandates.