To Vaccinate or not to Vaccinate…That's the Question of the Day!

Every year around this time I get calls from clients about their mandatory flu vaccination program and employee objections. This year is no exception. 

In recent years, objections have been based on religious grounds since employees now understand that, if they claim a medical exemption, they will be required to provide some fairly specific support from their healthcare provider. 

So, when should an employee be permitted to forego the flu vaccination (and instead be required to wear a mask) as a religious accommodation? Recently the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit provided a nice analysis of this issue in Fallon v Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Fallon was a psychiatric crisis intake worker at Mercy Catholic since the mid-1990s. In 2012, employees were told to either get a flu vaccine or submit a request for a medical or religious exemption. Fallon sought, and was granted, a religious exemption in 2012 and 2013 based on a lengthy essay he submitted explaining his “sincerely held” beliefs. But Fallon’s request was denied in 2014, and he was told his submission no longer sufficed under Mercy Catholic’s new standards for religious exemptions. He was told to obtain a letter from his clergyperson, which Fallon was unable to do.

Fallon was eventually suspended and terminated, and this lawsuit followed. The federal district court granted the hospital’s motion for dismissal and Fallon appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

First, let me be clear, a note from a clergyperson is not a requirement for an exemption.  However, a sincerely held religious belief (as opposed to merely a personal belief) is, and that is why Fallon’s appeal failed as explained below.

The appellate court began with an analysis of the Supreme Court’s standard for determining whether a belief is religious in nature as had been set forth in United States v Seeger

“[D]oes the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?” With this standard, the Court differentiated between those whose views were religious in nature and those whose views were “essentially political, sociological, or philosophical…” The Court stated then, and has continued to reiterate ever since, that no court should inquire into the validity or plausibility of the beliefs; instead, the task of a court is “to decide whether the beliefs professed by a [person] are sincerely held and whether they are, in [the believer’s] own scheme of things, religious.”

Since then, the Supreme Court has further clarified that a “belief in God or divine beings was not necessary; nontheistic beliefs could also be religious within the meaning of [Title VII] as long as they ‘occupy in the life of that individual ‘a place parallel to that filled by…God’ in traditionally religious persons.” Since then, the appellate court has described the situation as follows: “a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters … is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching…[and] can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.” Africa v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The appellate court noted that Fallon’s beliefs included that “one should not harm their [sic]own body and strongly believes that the flu vaccine may do more harm than good…that if he yielded to coercion and consented to the hospital mandatory policy, he would violate his conscience as to what is right and what is wrong.”

The court found that these beliefs fail to “address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters, nor are they comprehensive in nature. Generally, he simply worries about the health effects of the flu vaccine, disbelieves the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people, and wishes to avoid this vaccine.”

In short, Fallon’s is a medical rather than a religious belief, even though he applied “one general moral commandment (which might be paraphrased as, “Do not harm your own body”) to come to the conclusion that the flu vaccine is morally wrong.”  His sole moral commandment is an “isolated moral teaching” rather than a “comprehensive system of beliefs about fundamental or ultimate matters.” 

Finally, the appellate court found that Fallon’s 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.’”  The appellate court, while recognizing that anti-vaccination beliefs may be part of a broader religious faith and be entitled to protection, Fallon’s were not.    

While an opinion by the appellate court is not “precedent” for Michigan employers, it provided a nice analysis that is instructional. My guess is that Mercy Catholic’s “standard” for a religious exemption changed because it consulted with new legal counsel.

Any employer that implements a mandatory flu vaccination program will likely have at least one employee seeking an exemption. Under such circumstances, it is wise to seek advice from an experienced employment attorney.

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