Vaccines & Religious Accommodation
COVID is abating, restrictions are being lifted, but the issues surrounding an employer’s obligation to accommodate an employee’s objection to vaccinations remain. Recently, a court in Pennsylvania granted summary judgment to an employer who terminated an employee because she refused to be vaccinated for the flu. The case, Aukamp-Corcoran v. Lancaster General Hospital, is an illustration of the analysis that should be undertaken when an employee requests an accommodation based on religion.
The employer in Aukamp-Corcoran is a community based not for profit health care system. The employee was a licensed practical nurse working in one of the clinics that the employer operated, where she provided direct patient care to geriatric patients. More than 90% of flu deaths occur in geriatric patients and vaccination is the most effective method for preventing the transmission of the flu from health care workers to their patients.
The employer, like many health care providers, mandated influenza vaccination for all employees, unless a specific exemption was requested and granted. The vaccine mandate had been in place for more than five years and the employee had complied with it. However, the employee testified that she began researching vaccines and its effects. She became pregnant after she had begun her research and asked her midwife to certify her for an exemption based on her pregnancy. Her midwife refused. The employee then sought support for a medical exemption from her obstetric practice. Her treating physician refused.
The employee then consulted a Facebook group. She told the group that she had been denied support for a medical exemption from both her midwife and her physician. Members of the group commiserated with her and told her to avoid vaccination at all costs. Several posts recommended that she apply for a religious exemption and offered her language to use when making that request. She followed their advice and applied for a religious exemption.
The employer had established a procedure whereby requests for a religious exemption were reviewed by a retired judge, who interviewed the employee. After questioning her and reviewing some of the posts from the Facebook group, he concluded that her objections to the vaccine were based on her medical beliefs not her religious beliefs. The employer denied her an exemption and later terminated her when she continued to refuse to be vaccinated. She sued alleging that her employer failed to accommodate her religious beliefs and practices.
The court began its analysis by noting that the employee had to show that she had a “sincere religious belief” that prevented her from being vaccinated. It concluded that she did not. The facts surrounding her request for an exemption based on religion were “suspicious.” She raised her objections to the vaccine on religious grounds only after her medical providers refused to provide her with a medical exemption and upon the suggestions of a secular Facebook group that the vaccine was dangerous. But even if her beliefs were sincere, they were not based on religion. She questioned the medical efficacy of the vaccine and sought to circumvent the mandatory vaccination requirement. An employer is not obligated to accommodate an employee’s medical beliefs. Nor is an employer required to provide an accommodation to an employee’s political, economic, scientific or philosophical beliefs.
But the court did not end its analysis there. Even if the employee had been able to show that she had a sincerely held religious belief that prevented her from being vaccinated, the employer was not obligated to accommodate her request if it was an undue hardship.
The employer argued and submitted evidence that exempting employees from the vaccination requirement increases the risk that a vaccine preventable disease will spread. The employer had granted some medical and religious exemptions and the employee argued that granting additional non-medical exemptions would not be an undue hardship.
The court disagreed. It held in that granting a medical exemption the employer weighed the benefits of allowing an employee to avoid the adverse effects of vaccination on the employee with the risk that the employee would expose patients to the flu. However, there is no corresponding medical benefit in granting an exemption for non-medical reasons.
The case reminds us that an employee need not accommodate an employee’s political, philosophical, or scientific beliefs. It is only required to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs. And only if accommodating those sincerely held religious beliefs would not be an undue hardship.
Should this also refer to broader guidance – and a caveat for state-specific limitations? E.g: “The guidance in this case amplifies that provided and updated by the EEOC (https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws). It also remains important to consider any applicable state-specific requirements regarding vaccination mandates and exemptions, such as the November 2021 Florida statute.”