The antivaccination 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 refuse to participate and lower the efficacy of vaccinations for those who do.
In an effort to protect their decision making, antivaccination employees claim that their decisions are motivated by “sincere and strongly held beliefs” that are tantamount to religious convictions. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit (the appellate court responsible for reviewing all federal trial court decisions in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey) has rejected that argument.
The case—Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center of Southeastern Pennsylvania—turned on the termination of Fallon by Mercy Fitzgerald Hospital. Like most healthcare providers, Mercy had a policy that required all employees 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. He then filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and eventually filed a lawsuit.
Fallon’s case was dismissed by a federal trial court because while his belief was sincerely held, it wasn’t religious in nature.
Fallon’s case is interesting for a host of reasons. Mercy imposed its vaccination requirement in 2012. It granted him 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 essay as a valid basis for an exemption. It explained that it had changed its standard and requested a letter from a clergyperson to substantiate the exemption request. Fallon, who wasn’t a member of a religious organization or denomination, couldn’t provide a 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 request to dismiss—an aggressive move that is rarely successful. It argued that because Fallon acknowledged that his antivaccination beliefs were sincerely held but not religiously motivated, his claim must fail. He, 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 3rd Circuit.
The 3rd 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 [it] is unable to reasonably accommodate 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 3rd Circuit relied on guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether a belief is religious or essentially political, sociological, or philosophical: “Does 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 Supreme Court has been very clear that belief in God or a divine being isn’t necessary to establish a religious belief worthy of protection under federal law. Instead, it is the role the belief plays in the life of the believer that matters. Or as the 3rd Circuit 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 that standard to Fallon’s asserted beliefs, the court found they were limited to “the health effects of the flu vaccine.” Rather than religious, his convictions were 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 people incorporate a sincerely held belief against vaccinations and that in those cases, antivaccination beliefs are protected under Title VII.
Antivaccination beliefs have created significant angst for employers, especially in light of statements by the EEOC that antivaccination beliefs are covered by the broad definition of “religion” under Title VII. However, the 3rd Circuit provides much-needed guidance about where the line between medical opinions and religion ought to be drawn. This case should provide special solace to medical facilities that struggle with controlling contagions throughout the fall and winter seasons.