Vaccinations & Religion

Debates over religious accommodation typically run into the difficult problem of slippery slopes where individual claims meriting individual decisions create principles that have wider implications. These debates find themselves in the company of a category of recent cases involving religious accommodation and vaccinations.

The first comes from Michigan, where the EEOC is suing a state hospital for rescinding an employment contract after the applicant refused to get a mandatory flu shot—citing her sincerely held religious beliefs. Her specific beliefs are rooted in the understanding as follower of Jesus Christ that she “cannot inject or ingest foreign substances in her body and must rely on natural methods for health.” While employment cases have upheld mandatory grooming policies or even certain gender based discrimination requirements (BFOQ) in the face of Title VII allegations, the EEOC has taken “an aggressive stance on mandatory flu shots, going after employers that fire workers who refuse the shot for religious reasons.”[1] For example, in a similar case just last month in North Carolina, a healthcare provider settled with the EEOC for $89,000, as an employee discrimination lawyer Atlanta GA trusts can attest.

Two wider issues are implicated in these cases.

The first is the availability of religious accommodation claims involving vaccinations on grounds of moral conscience or personal belief. An interesting example comes from Pennsylvania, where a Walgreens pharmacist refused to administer the flu shot based on moral and ethical reasons, after losing a friend who had “contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome after receiving a flu vaccine.”[2] In a more recent case, the Plaintiff refused to be vaccinated because he questioned the efficacy of procedure. In this latter decision, we see the reasoning of courts that traditionally dismiss these types of cases for failure to show a sincerely held religious belief. Their language is instructive: while acknowledging the shift away from a strictly theistic understanding of religion, the court concluded that the plaintiff’s “stated opposition to vaccinations is entirely personal, political, sociological and economic—the very definition of secular philosophy as opposed to religious orientation.”[3]

The second issue is the impact of accommodation on the wider population. With America currently fighting a flu epidemic[4]—numbers suggesting over 4,000 deaths per week (including 84 children)[5]—the question regarding how far religious accommodation will be tolerated is uncertain. This will perhaps raise a related issue concerning paid sick leave. According to 2009 study by the CEPR: “[l]ow-wage workers are also much less likely to have paid sick days or leave than higher wage workers.”[6]


Thanks to our friends and contributors from Barrett & Farahany for their insight into vaccines and religion.

 

[1] https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/legal-and-compliance/employment-law/pages/eeoc-opposes-mandatory-flu-shots.aspx

[2] Prewitt v. Walgreens Co., 92 F. Supp. 3d 292 (2015).

[3] Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr. of Se. Pennsylvania, 200 F. Supp. 3d 553, 563 (E.D. Pa. 2016), aff’d, 877 F.3d 487 (3d Cir. 2017).

[4] https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm#S2.

[5] https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/fluview/mortality.html (combined total for influenza and pneumonia);https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/02/16/flu-kills-22-more-children-bringing-toll-84-kids-worst-season-decade-continues/342813002/.

[6] http://cepr.net/documents/publications/paid-sick-days-2009-05.pdf.