Vaccinations and Religion: The Limits Are Set

Flushot.jpgThe anti-vaccination movement has been gaining traction in the United States for several years, much to the chagrin of safety-minded employers. While businesses offer ever broader benefits to limit the business impact of nationwide pandemics, including on-site flu clinics, many employees are refusing to participate and lowering the efficacy of vaccinations for those who do.  In an effort to protect their decision-making, anti-vaccination employees are claiming that their decisions are motivated by “sincere and strongly held beliefs” that are tantamount to a religious conviction.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, the appellate court responsible for reviewing all federal trial court decisions in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, has rejected this argument.

A Viral Belief

This case, known as Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania, turns on the termination of employee Paul Fallon by Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital.  Like most healthcare providers, Mercy had a policy that all employees had to receive certain vaccinations—including the influenza vaccine—unless they qualified for a medical or religious exemption.  Fallon refused to receive the flu vaccine, asserting that it might do more harm than good.  While he claimed a religious exemption, his assertion was rejected by Mercy, and he was terminated.  Fallon then filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and eventually filed a lawsuit.

Fallon’s case was first heard, and dismissed, by a federal trial court, on the basis that while his belief was sincerely held, it was not religious in nature.

Risky Behavior

Fallon’s case is interesting for a host of reasons. Mercy imposed its vaccination requirement in 2012.  It granted Fallon religious exemptions in 2012 and 2013, relying on his “sincerely held beliefs” as articulated in a lengthy essay attached to his exemption form.  However, Mercy changed course in 2014, rejecting the exact same essay as a valid basis for exemption.  Mercy explained that it had changed its standard, and requested a letter from a clergyperson to substantiate the exemption request.  Fallon, who was not a member of any religious organization or denomination, could not provide the letter.  He was suspended and ultimately terminated when he refused to comply with the policy.

A Court with Some Healthy Skepticism

After Fallon filed his lawsuit, Mercy filed a motion to dismiss—an aggressive move that is rarely successful. Mercy argued that, because Fallon acknowledged that his anti-vaccination beliefs were sincerely held but not religiously motivated, his claim must fail.  Fallon, of course, opposed the request to dismiss his lawsuit.  In an unusual move, the federal trial court dismissed the lawsuit, and Fallon promptly appealed the decision to the Third Circuit.

The Third Circuit conducted a careful review of Fallon’s allegations and upheld the dismissal. The Court began with a review of the language of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to terminate an employee because of his religion.  Title VII defines “religion” to mean “all aspects of religious observance and practice, as well as belief, unless an employer demonstrates that he is unable to reasonably accommodate to an employee’s or prospective employee’s religious observance or practice without undue hardship on the conduct of the employer’s business.”  The Court noted that determining when a sincerely held belief constitutes “religion” is an extremely difficult task, requiring much circumspection.  In conducting its analysis, the Third Circuit relied upon guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether a belief was religious, or essentially political, sociological, or philosophical:  “[D]oes the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?”

Notably, the U.S. Supreme Court has been very clear that belief in God or a divine being is not necessary to establish a religious belief worthy of protection under federal law. Instead, it is the role that the belief plays in the life of the believer.  Or, as the Third Circuit itself had previously held, “First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief-system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.”

Applying this standard to Fallon’s asserted beliefs, the Court found them to be limited to “the health effects of the flu vaccine.” Rather than religious, Fallon’s conviction was medical in nature, constituting a disbelief of “the scientifically accepted view” that the flu vaccine is harmless to most people.  The Court was careful, however, to note that some religious incorporate a sincerely held belief against vaccination and, in those cases, anti-vaccination beliefs would be protected under Title VII.

Bottom Line

Anti-vaccination beliefs have created significant angst for employers, especially in light of statements by the EEOC that anti-vaccination beliefs would be covered within the broad definition of “religion” under Title VII. However, the Third Circuit provides much needed guidance as to where the line between medical opinions and religion ought to be drawn.  This opinion should provide special solace to medical facilities, which struggle with controlling contagions throughout the fall and winter seasons.