Iowa judge: Mask policy didn’t violate worker’s religious rights

By: - February 2, 2021 12:46 pm

An Iowa nursing home worker who was fired after refusing to let a visitor enter the building due to COVID-19 restrictions has been awarded jobless benefits for keeping residents of the home safe. (Photo by Getty Images)

An Iowa judge has denied unemployment benefits for a dental technician who cited religious reasons for refusing to wear a face mask intended to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

State records indicate Kelly C. Jones lost her job last year at Cloak Dental Labs of Williamsburg after a series of conflicts with her boss over the laboratory’s policy of requiring employees to wear either a face mask or a reusable face shield due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jones worked alongside six other individuals in the laboratory, which provides dental restorations and other products for private clinics and for the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry.

In May of last year, a controversy arose in the lab over Jones’ refusal to wear a face mask at work. Three of Jones’ coworkers had underlying health issues that placed them at risk of severe illness or death if they contracted COVID-19, and the various clinics where Jones delivered products required face masks.

According to state unemployment records, Jones claimed a vague medically based reason for refusing to wear a mask but did not provide a note from her doctor. In a series of text messages sent while she was off work, Jones allegedly asked her boss whether he was going to require her to wear a mask “all day.”

He replied, “Yes. My policy goes over it all. I hate it, but it’s necessary. Everyone is encouraged to go outside and have a breath of fresh air whenever they need to.”

Jones reportedly replied by indicating she would have her lawyer look over the policy. Her boss then wrote, “Is your issue with wearing one a medical issue or a like a liberty/rights issue?” Jones did not respond, and did not return to work.

Jones’ boss subsequently provided her with a copy of the lab’s new face mask policy, which stated that workers with “a health condition” that prevented them from wearing a face mask would be provided a reusable face shield to wear at work.

Jones allegedly refused to sign the policy, then cited a religious objection to the mask policy. According to state records, she provided her boss with a note from a pastor that cited the Iowa Civil Rights Act and asserted a religious basis for not wearing a face mask or any other form of facial protection.

Jones’ boss later sent her an email indicating he considered her conduct over the preceding few days to be a resignation. Jones then applied for unemployment benefits.

Administrative Law Judge James Timberland recently ruled against Jones, finding that she had committed workplace misconduct and the lab had “reasonable business, public health, and safety” reasons for implementing a policy requiring workers to wear either face masks or face shields. Timberland noted that the policy applied to all workers at the lab, regardless of their religious beliefs.

“The policy was uniform in application and did not discriminate on the basis of religion or any other protected status,” Timberland wrote in his ruling of Jan. 19. “The policy and requirement in no manner violated the claimant’s constitutional rights or the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.