The Volokh Conspiracy

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EEOC settles religious accommodation case, over exemption for hospital workers from flu shot requirement


From an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission news release about an interesting religious accommodation claim:

Saint Vincent Health Center will pay $300,000 constituting back pay and compensatory damages to a class of six aggrieved former employees and provide substantial injunctive relief to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ….

In its lawsuit, EEOC alleged that in October 2013, Saint Vincent Health Center … implemented a mandatory seasonal flu vaccination requirement for its employees unless they were granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons. Under the policy, employees who received an exemption were required to wear a face mask while having patient contact during flu season in lieu of receiving the vaccination. Employees who refused the vaccine but were not granted an exemption by the Health Center were fired, according to EEOC's lawsuit.

From October 2013 to January 2014, EEOC alleged, the six employees identified in its complaint requested religious exemptions from the Health Center's flu vaccination requirement based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and the Health Center denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, the Health Center fired them. According to EEOC's lawsuit, during this same period, the Health Center granted fourteen … vaccination exemption requests based on medical reasons while denying all religion-based exemption requests.

The settlement provided that, "if the Health Center chooses to require employee influenza vaccination as a condition of employment, it must grant exemptions from that requirement to all employees with sincerely held religious beliefs who request exemption from the vaccination on religious grounds unless such exemption poses an undue hardship on the Health Center's operations." And it also provided that the health center could not require that exemption requests be certified by clergy members. Title VII, the EEOC reasoned, "forbids employers from rejecting accommodation requests based on their disagreement with an employee's belief; their opinion that the belief is unfounded, illogical, or inconsistent in some way; or their conclusion that an employee's belief is not an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any particular religion or denomination."

The EEOC is quite right in concluding that an employer can't require a note from your minister as a condition of an exemption; people with sincere religious beliefs need to be treated equally, regardless of whether their beliefs are shared by their church hierarchy. Whether the EEOC is right that the employer can grant the exemption without "undue hardship" to itself, or to its other employees or patients, is a factual question, and one that won't be resolved in court, given the settlement; but the general framework that the EEOC is using here is indeed the one that Title VII's religious accommodation requirements call for. Whether those are good requirements is a separate question, which I'm happy to leave to readers.

Thanks to Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.