The United States is in the midst of an unusually lethal flu season, and health experts agree that despite inconsistencies in their effectiveness, flu shots are among the best ways to fight the spread of the flu. A recent holding from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals provides some good news for health care employers who require that their patient-facing employees receive flu shots, making it more difficult for employees to claim a religious exemption.
Courts have held that health care employers may require their patient-facing employees to be vaccinated against a number of diseases, including the flu. Whether employers can mandate vaccinations for all employees has been a closer question. A key issue faced by employers is determining whether an employee’s anti-vaccination beliefs qualify for a religious exemption.
In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center, the Third Circuit considered the religious exemption, clarifying what may qualify as such. Paul Fallon, a psychiatric crisis intake employee of Mercy Catholic Medical Center (“Mercy”), refused to get his required annual flu shot. Fallon had successfully asserted a religious exemption for several years before Mercy changed its policy to require that employees seeking such exemptions provide a note from a clergy member. Fallon, who does not belong to a religious organization, did not provide the clergy note, instead outlining his “sincerely held beliefs” opposing the vaccine in a 22-page essay. Mercy determined that Fallon’s beliefs, however sincere, were not religious. It did not grant the exemption, and subsequently fired Fallon when he continued to refuse vaccination. Fallon sued Mercy for wrongful termination alleging religious discrimination and a failure to accommodate in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The District Court sided with Mercy, and the Third Circuit affirmed the decision. The court relied on the three-part modern definition of religion, as adopted in Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 662 F.2d 1025, 1032 (3d Cir. 1981): a religion (1) addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters; (2) is comprehensive in nature, consisting of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching; and (3) is often recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs. The court concluded that Fallon’s belief that “the flu vaccine may do more harm than good” amounted to nothing more than a concern about the health effects of the vaccine and demonstrated his disbelief of the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people. Therefore, Fallon could not meet either of the first two prongs of the Africa test. In addition, Fallon was unable to meet the third pong because he could not demonstrate that his beliefs manifested in “formal and external signs,” such as services or the existence of clergy. Accordingly, the court concluded that Fallon’s “beliefs do not occupy a place in his life similar to that occupied by a more traditional faith,” meaning that “[h]is objection to vaccination is . . . not religious and not protected by Title VII.”
While the court’s decision provides guidance for employers responding to anti-vaccination beliefs, the court recognized that anti-vaccination beliefs can be part of “a broader religious faith.” Thus, employers should be mindful not to categorically deny all requests for religious exemptions based on anti-vaccination beliefs.
Employers also should follow the recent developments within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which recently established a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and released a proposed rule that would provide protections for health care workers who refuse to participate in services that run counter to their religious beliefs or moral convictions. In an HHS press release on January 19, 2018, Acting HHS Secretary Eric D. Hargan said that the creation of the Division constitutes “a rollback of policies that had prevented many Americans from practicing their profession and following their conscience at the same time,” adding that “Americans of faith should feel at home in our health system, not discriminated against.” These developments, and the public comments by HHS officials, may signal a move to prevent employers from enforcing mandatory flu vaccination policies.