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(Adds Bristol Myers statement)
By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Bristol Myers Squibb Co was sued on Wednesday by four employees who said the drugmaker refused to grant them religious exemptions from its COVID-19 vaccination requirement, and threatened to fire them on Dec. 6 for remaining unvaccinated.
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.
The plaintiffs allege that Bristol Myers is concluding their politics is the real reason they won't be vaccinated, regardless of whether they have sincere religious beliefs that independently would justify exemptions.
They 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.
Bristol Myers said its priority during the pandemic has been the health and safety of communities, employees and patients.
"Our policy that all eligible employees in (the) U.S. and Puerto Rico be vaccinated against COVID-19 is consistent with this safety priority," the New York-based company said in a statement.
Wednesday's lawsuit came as the Biden administration seeks to require vaccinations for millions of workers at large private U.S. employers, a mandate is also being challenged in court.
Many health officials consider widespread vaccinations the best way to help control the pandemic.
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 they fill out "inquisitorial" questionnaires about their reasons for religious exemptions.
The complaint said Bristol Myers rejected Kefalas' request because it thought her beliefs were insincere and she might not accept mask-wearing or regular COVID-19 testing. The company offered no reasons for the other rejections, the complaint said.
Bristol Myers referred in Kefalas' rejection letter to several statements it said she made publicly, including that its 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 and Cynthia Osterman)