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Third Circuit Finds No Religious Discrimination Against Employee Who Refused To Get A Flu Shot

In Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania, No. 16-3573 (3d Cir. December 14, 2017), the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Pennsylvania) found no religious discrimination against an employee who was fired for refusing to get a flu shot.  The employee worked for a hospital that required all employees to get a flu shot.  As a reasonable accommodation for religious reasons, the hospital allowed employees to avoid the flu shot, and wear protective masks instead.  In Fallon, the employee sought the religious exemption.  The hospital refused to give an exemption to the employee, who stated that he opposed the flu vaccine because he believed that it did more harm than good.

When the employee continued to refuse to get a flu shot, the hospital fired him, and the employee brought a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Under Title VII, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ sincerely-held religious beliefs.  Religion under Title VII encompasses more than just traditional religions.  To establish religious discrimination under Title VII, the employee must show, among other things, that he holds a sincere religious belief, which was the basis for his termination.

Here, the court did not question whether the employee’s belief was sincerely held, but instead examined whether the employee’s beliefs amounted to a religion.  Under the law, to be considered “religious,” a belief must occupy the same place in the life of the exemption seeker as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of someone clearly qualified for the religious exemption.  The Third Circuit has stated that religion first “addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters.”  It has further stated that religion consists of a belief system, not just an isolated system, and that it often has formal and external signs.  Using these standards, the court held that the employee simply was worried about the health effects of the flu vaccine, and that his beliefs were not religious in nature.  Accordingly, the hospital had not violated Title VII by firing him for refusing to get a flu shot.

What Does This Mean For You?  All employers with at least four employees (who therefore are covered by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act) have the obligation to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs.  Generally, it is not necessary to examine closely whether an employee who requests a religious accommodation is entitled to it, and the employer’s focus should be on whether the requested accommodation is reasonable.  However, there may be occasions where the employee’s beliefs do not amount to a religion under the legal definition of religion in these circumstances.

If you have any questions or concerns about this update, or any other employment or labor law questions, please contact S. Whitney Rahman at swr@blakingerthomas.com or (717) 509-7237.

**This update is provided for informational purposes only and
should not be construed as legal advice or as creating an
attorney-client relationship where one does not already exist,
or as lobbying of any sort for or against any
National Labor Relations Board rules or decisions.**