Hospital Settles Claim of Religious Discrimination Based on Applicant’s Refusal of Flu Vaccine
The EEOC announced that it reached a $74,418 settlement with a hospital in Owosso, Michigan, to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit the agency had filed under Title VII against the hospital in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. See EEOC Bulletin and here.
The plaintiff in the case, Yvonne Bair claimed she applied to work at Memorial Healthcare as a medical transcriptionist and was offered the position. However, the hospital revoked its employment offer after she informed the hospital that her Christian beliefs required her to forego receiving an influenza shot or spray, which was a requirement of employment at Memorial. Bair, who would eventually have worked from home, had offered to wear a mask while working in the hospital. Significantly, according to the EEOC, the hospital had a policy allowing employees who had medical problems preventing them from receiving a flu shot to use masks, and it had allowed such employees to forego the vaccine.
According to the EEOC, the hospital will pay Bair $34,418 back pay, $20,000 compensatory damages, and $20,000 punitive damages. In addition, Memorial confirmed that it now permits those with religious objections to wear masks in lieu of having a flu shot. The hospital also agreed to train managerial staff on its religious accommodation policy.
Title VII requires that employers accommodate employees’ religious beliefs. It requires an employer, once on notice, to reasonably accommodate an employee whose sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance conflicts with a work requirement, unless providing the accommodation would create an undue hardship.
First, the legal requirement to accommodate an employee’s “sincerely held” religious belief applies regardless of whether the employer thinks the belief is “illogical,” “unacceptable,” or “incorrect.” See Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929, 932 (4th Cir. 1986). As one court noted, “one man’s religion will always be another man’s heresy.” United States v. Meyers, 906 F. Supp. 1494, 1499 (D. Wyo. 1995). An employer’s inquiry must be limited to whether the employee’s belief is sincerely held. The law did not permit Memorial to consider whether Bair’s religious belief prohibiting flu vaccination was logical or medically advisable.
Second, the obligation of religious accommodation applies to prospectiveemployees just as it applies to workers already employed. An employer may not permit an applicant’s need for a religious accommodation to affect its hiring decision, unless the employer can demonstrate undue hardship.
Finally, an employer violates an employee’s religious rights if a more favorable accommodation is provided to other employees for non-religious purposes. For example, an employer may not treat an employee’s requests for leave for religious observance differently than it treats employee requests for leave for non-religious purposes. See Ansonia Bd. of Educ. v. Philbrook, 479 U.S. 60, 70-71 (1986) (“Such an arrangement would display a discrimination against religious practices that is the antithesis of reasonableness.”). In the case of Memorial Hospital, the lawsuit alleged it treated the employee’s request for religious accommodation to wear a mask, rather than receive a flu vaccine differently, than the same request made by employees for medical, rather than religious, reasons.
As healthcare employers continue to grapple with responding to employees’ religious objections to vaccination programs, they should seek legal counsel to ensure they are responding in a manner that is consistent with applicable local, state and federal laws prohibiting religious discrimination.