Hospital worker’s flu vaccine refusal wasn’t based on religious belief; he can’t revive bias claim
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Monday, December 18, 2017

Hospital worker’s flu vaccine refusal wasn’t based on religious belief; he can’t revive bias claim

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

A hospital employee who was fired because he refused to be inoculated against the flu failed to revive his Title VII religious discrimination claim. His belief that the vaccine might do more harm than good, while sincere and strongly held, was not protected by Title VII since it was not religious in nature, the Third Circuit found, undertaking a thorough review of the judicial definitions of religion and U.S. Supreme Court precedent before affirming dismissal of his claim with prejudice (Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania, December 14, 207, Roth, J.).

Previously allowed to forgo vaccine. Since 1994, the employee had worked for Mercy Catholic Medical Center as a psychiatric crisis intake worker. In 2012, the hospital began requiring employees to obtain a flu vaccine or seek a medical or religious exemption. The employee did not belong to any religious organization, but held strong personal beliefs opposing the flu vaccine. Therefore, in 2012 and 2013, he successfully sought religious exemptions based on personal beliefs, which he explained in a 22-page essay.

New exemption requirements. In 2014, the employee made a similar request for an exemption, again attaching his lengthy essay. The hospital denied his request, explaining that his submission no longer sufficed under its new standards for granting a religious exemption, and that he needed to submit a letter from a clergyperson to support his request. Since he could not provide one, he was suspended and ultimately terminated for failing to comply with the flu vaccine requirement.

Lower court proceedings. He brought this Title VII lawsuit asserting religious discrimination. The district court dismissed his case with prejudice, ruling that his beliefs were not protected by Title VII since, though sincere and strongly held, they were not religious in nature. The Third Circuit affirmed.

Was belief religious in nature? Because the employee held a sincere opposition to vaccination that conflicted with the hospital’s flu vaccine requirement, at issue was whether his opposition constituted a religious belief under Title VII. This task “is particularly difficult” when questioning whether a “nontraditional faith” requires Title VII or First Amendment protections, the appeals court noted. The Supreme Court has differentiated between views that are religious in nature and those that are “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical,” and also has warned against inquiring into the validity or plausibility of the belief. Moreover, the belief in God or divine beings is not necessary. “Nontheistic beliefs” can also be religious within the meaning of Title VII as long as they occupy a place in their life “parallel” to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons.

Ultimately, the Third Circuit turned to the definition it adopted in Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where it heldthat a religion addresses “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.” A religion is also “comprehensive in nature” such that it “consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Finally, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain “formal and external signs.” Applying the Africa factors to the employee’s beliefs, the appeals court concluded they were not religious in nature.

No “comprehensive system of beliefs.” In his complaint, the employee agreed with a quote attributed to the founder of Buddhism and stated that he believed that “one should not harm their own body” and that the flu vaccine “may do more harm than good.” Thus, he argued that consenting to the vaccine policy would require him to violate his conscience as to what is right and what is wrong. However, these beliefs did not appear to address “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters,” nor were they “comprehensive in nature,” the appeals court observed. Rather, he was simply worried about the health effects of the flu vaccine, wished to avoid it, and disbelieved the scientifically accepted view that it was harmless to most people. In particular, the basis for his refusal of the vaccine—his concern that it may do more harm than good—was belief that was medical and not religious. He then applied the general moral commandment to “not harm your own body” to reach the conclusion that the flu vaccine is morally wrong. This “isolated moral teaching” was not a comprehensive system of beliefs about fundamental or ultimate matters.

No formal signs. Moreover, the employee’s anti-vaccine views were not manifested in “formal and external signs” such as “formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations associated with the traditional religions.” Accordingly, because his beliefs did not satisfy any of the Africa factors, they did not occupy a place in his life similar to that occupied by a more traditional faith.

“Religious belief” door is left open. Though the Third Circuit held that the employee’s objection to the flu vaccination was not religious and therefore not protected by Title VII, it emphasized that it was not holding that anti-vaccination beliefs can never be part of a broader religious faith. Rather, the employee failed to make such a showing here. And since he did not propose any amendments that would cure the fundamental deficiency in his claims—that his antivaccination beliefs are not religious in nature—the district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to grant him leave to amend.

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