From time to time, health care employers find themselves faced with employees who refuse to take mandatory vaccines intended to protect themselves and their patients from exposure to infectious diseases. Sometimes these refusals are based on medical reasons, but occasionally employees cite a religious objection as the basis for their resistance. Title VII requires employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices in some circumstances, and these situations raise questions as to whether the employer is required to waive the vaccine requirement.
Last month, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals avoided the accommodation issue by concluding that an employee’s objections to the vaccination requirement were not based on religious reasons. In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Cen. of S.E. Penn., the plaintiff repeatedly refused to take the vaccine, citing deeply held personal beliefs over the potential harm presented by the flu shot. The hospital requested a letter from his clergyperson explaining the religious basis for the objection. When the plaintiff failed to comply with this requirement, the hospital terminated him for failing to follow the vaccine requirement. He sued, claiming religious discrimination under Title VII.
On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s objections to the vaccine were based on reasons other than religion within that term’s meaning under Title VII. While noting that cases involving nontraditional faiths are difficult for courts to adjudicate, in this situation the Third Circuit found no comprehensive system of beliefs upon which the vaccine objection was based. Concerns over the effect of the flu shot on his body, or rejection of scientific conclusions on this topic, are not protected religious beliefs.
This case raises issues for employers faced with employees who express nontraditional belief systems. Absent a system of formal services and ceremonial functions, employers – like courts – may have a difficult task in distinguishing between religious and personal beliefs. In this case at least, the court was willing to make a judgment and to require that an employee seeking protection under Title VII’s religious accommodation demonstrate belief in a more structured religious framework.