With cold and flu season in full swing, we frequently receive phone calls from employers asking if they can require their employees to receive flu shots. Generally, employers may impose such requirements if they offer reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities or sincerely-held religious beliefs. A recent precedential decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit–the intermediate appellate federal court that covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware–addressed what constitutes a “religious” belief in this context.
In 2012, Mercy Catholic Medical Center began requiring its employees to obtain a flu vaccine or submit an exemption form to obtain a medical or religious exemption. Any employee granted an exemption was required to wear a mask as an accommodation. In 2012 and 2013, an employee sought and received religious exemptions based on beliefs, which he explained in a lengthy essay attached to his requests. Although the employee was not a member of a religious organization, he held strong personal beliefs against the flu vaccine, namely that “one should not harm their own body” and that the flu vaccine may do more harm than good.
In 2014, the employee again requested an exemption and attached the essay explaining his anti-vaccine beliefs. The employer denied his request and asked him to provide a letter from a clergyperson to support his request. When the employee could not do so, he was suspended and later terminated for failing to comply with the vaccine requirement. The employee, in turn, filed suit, claiming that his former employer failed to accommodate his religious beliefs and fired him because of his religious beliefs. These claims were dismissed by the trial court.
On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed the trial court, finding that the employee’s beliefs were not “religious” in nature. To qualify as “religious” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, beliefs must address “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters” and be “comprehensive in nature.” The Third Circuit found that the basis for the employee’s refusal of the flu vaccine–that the vaccine may do more harm than good–was a medical belief, not a religious one.
This decision highlights that employers seeking to implement mandatory vaccination requirements must accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs or practices that may conflict work workplace rules (so long as it does not cause undue hardship).
John Buckley is an associate in the Pennsylvania office of Norris McLaughlin & Marcus, P.A. He specializes in employment law, including drafting and revising employee handbooks and manuals as well as presenting training programs. In addition, John frequently litigates employment matters ranging from breach of employment agreement and restrictive covenants to discrimination, disability, and wage and hour violations under federal and state laws. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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