Flu Shot Exemption as Religious Accommodation

A recent case out of Pennsylvania focuses on a requested religious accommodation that would exempt certain employees from their employer’s flu shot requirement. Instead of granting this requested exemption, the employees were terminated by their hospital employer.

EEOC’s claims against St. Vincent Health Center

It was alleged that, in October 2013, St. Vincent Health Center began implementing a mandatory seasonal flu shot for all employees of the hospital, unless they were given an exemption due to medical or religious reasons. Employees who were allowed this exemption were required to wear face masks during patient contact throughout the flu season.

During the relevant time period, fourteen exemption requests were granted based on medical reasons, but every request based on a sincerely held religious belief was denied. More specifically, the employees who sought an exemption based on religious reasons, however, were required to provide a certification from a member of their clergy, in order to verify their beliefs. The six employees who claimed a religious exemption, but were unable to provide the required certification were terminated.

Lawsuit settled by St. Vincent Health Center

Saint Vincent Health Center agreed to pay $300,000 to the six employees in order to settle their claims. This amount represents their back pay which accrued from their terminations, as well as, compensatory damages. In addition to the $300,000, the employees were offered reinstatement. A consent decree was also entered in the case, which provided several different forms of injunctive relief.

Injunctive relief award against the health center

One component of the consent decree requires the health center to provide religious-based exemptions for employees with sincerely held religious beliefs unless such exemption would pose an undue hardship on the company’s operations. St. Vincent is also required to notify employees of their right to request religious exemption, as well as, establish appropriate procedures for considering those accommodation requests.

Whenever the medical center considers requests for religious accommodation, it must adhere to the definition of "religion" established by Title VII and controlling federal court decisions. That definition prohibits employers from rejecting accommodation requests simply because they may disagree with an employee's belief. This means, that regardless of an employer’s opinion that an employee’s religious belief is unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent, or that an employee's belief is not actually an official tenet or endorsed teaching of a particular religion or denomination, the accommodation request must be considered.

Finally, the decree requires that St. Vincent Health Center provide employee training regarding Title VII reasonable accommodations. This training must be provided for its

key personnel. The health center must also maintain reasonable accommodation policies and accommodation request procedures that comply with all of Title VII’s requirements in this regard.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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