In a rare federal court of appeals opinion in this area, the Third Circuit has occasion to decide whether a hospital employee manifested a religious (versus an ethical) objection to getting a flu shot that would be protected by Title VII’s religious-accommodation provision, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(j).
Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr., No. 16-3573 (3d Cir. Dec. 14, 2017): plaintiff Fallon began working at the hospital performing patient intake in 1994. In 2012, the hospital began requiring employees to get flu shots, unless exempt for religious reasons. The hospital granted Fallon a waiver for the first two years, in deference to his personal objection to vaccinations.
In 2014, the hospital reportedly tightened its requirements for an exemption, and found that Fallon didn’t qualify. “Mercy Catholic requested a letter from a clergyperson to support his request for an exemption. Fallon could not provide one.” He was then fired for failing to comply. Fallon commenced suit, alleging that the hospital discriminated and failed to reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs under Title VII.
The Third Circuit affirms dismissal of the case at the complaint stage. While acknowledging that courts must be highly circumspect when defining what is meant by “religion,” the panel holds that the employee – as a matter of law – never advanced a religious objection to vaccination.
To evaluate the claim, the panel adopts a definition of religion adopted in Africa v. Com. of Pa., 662 F.2d 1025, 1031 (3d Cir. 1981):
“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.”
Fallon’s opposition to vaccination failed to meet this test. It constituted, at most, the plaintiff’s moral imperative not to do harm to his own body. It was not part of a fundamental or comprehensive belief system, as the Africa decision would require:
“Generally, he simply worries about the health effects of the flu vaccine, disbelieves the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people, and wishes to avoid this vaccine. In particular, the basis of his refusal of the flu vaccine-his concern that the flu vaccine may do more harm than good-is a medical belief, not a religious one. He then applies one general moral commandment (which might be paraphrased as, ‘Do not harm your own body’) to come to the conclusion that the flu vaccine is morally wrong. This one moral commandment is an ‘isolated moral teaching’; by itself, it is not a comprehensive system of beliefs about fundamental or ultimate matters.”
Fallon’s belief also failed to manifest itself in outward signs, such as services or ceremonies. In sum, “Fallon’s beliefs do not occupy a place in his life similar to that occupied by a more traditional faith. His objection to vaccination is Therefore not religious and not protected by Title VII.”
Tha panel recognizes that valid religious opposition to vaccination may be protected by Title VII as part of a broader belief system, citing Christian Science, but that a singular objection to flu shots without more did not pass muster.