The Family and Medical Leave Act provides job-protected leave for eligible employees who miss work due to a serious health condition that affects them or a close relative. What happens when the alleged sickness relates not to the employee's body, but to his or her soul? Last week in Tayag v. Lahey Clinic Hospital, Inc., the First Circuit Court of Appeals determined that a spiritual pilgrimage falls outside of the FMLA's leave rights.
The plaintiff's husband suffered from serious health problems. She requested FMLA leave to accompany him to the Philippines for medical treatment. The physician's certification form stated that the plaintiff needed to accompany her husband on any travel due to his medical condition, but did not state that the husband would be receiving any medical treatment during the trip. The employer denied FMLA leave, and the plaintiff sued following her termination for absences related to the trip.
The First Circuit agreed that the leave request did not fall under the FMLA. While in the Philippines, the plaintiff's husband visited churches and religious sites, but received no medical care. Healing pilgrimages do not involve care provided by any medical provider as defined under the FMLA. The Act does provide for leave in the event of faith healing provided by Christian Science practitioners. The plaintiff argued that it would be unconstitutional to recognize this exception for one religion but not for another.
The Court rejected this argument, noting that Christian Science does not permit any type of medical care other than the described faith healing. FMLA recognizes a limited exception in cases where the employee's religious beliefs do not permit any other medical care. The plaintiff's husband in this case was also under the care of a conventional medical care provider, and she was ineligible for leave for what the First Circuit concluded was a vacation, and not medical treatment.