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Religion and the Law

EEOC Sues Over Employer's Refusing Religious Exemption from Flu Vaccine Requirements


From this press release sent out last Friday (see also the Complaint):

Children's Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), a pediatric healthcare system in Georgia, violated federal law when it fired a maintenance assistant for requesting a religious exemption to its influenza vaccination policy, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed today.

According to the EEOC's suit, the maintenance employee, in accordance with CHOA's procedures, requested a religious exemption to CHOA's flu vaccination requirements based on sincerely held religious beliefs. CHOA had previously granted the employee a religious exemption in 2017 and 2018. In 2019, however, CHOA denied the employee's request for a religious accommodation and fired him, despite the employee's extremely limited interaction with the public or staff.

Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits firing an employee because of his religion and requires that sincerely held religious beliefs be accommodated by employers. The EEOC filed suit …, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement via its conciliation pro­cess. The EEOC is seeking back pay, front pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages for the employee, as well as injunctive relief to prevent future discrimina­tion.

"It would not have been an undue burden for CHOA to continue accommodating its employee as it had in 2017 and 2018," said Marcus G. Keegan, regional attorney for the EEOC's Atlanta District Office. "Instead, CHOA inexplicably changed its stance on flu vaccination exemptions for this maintenance employee in 2019 and failed to consider any meaningful reasonable accommodations for his sincerely held religious beliefs."

Darrell Graham, district director of the Atlanta office, said, "Religion is defined to include all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, and the EEOC stands ready to enforce an employer's statutory obligation to reasonably accommodate the religious observances and practices of its employees where doing so would not be an undue hardship on the conduct of the employer's business."

Recall that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended in 1972, expressly requires religious exemptions from generally applicable private and public employer work rules, if

  1. an employee sincerely believes the rule conflicts with the employee's religious beliefs, and
  2. the employer can "make reasonable accommodations, short of undue hardship, for [those] religious practices," such as by exempting the employee from the work rules.

I expect that the litigation will chiefly focus on how much of a hardship to the employer  would be caused by granting an exemption from the vaccination mandate to the employee, given the employee's specific work obligations.

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