Ms F hated winter. It wasn’t because of the cold, or the icy roads, or the increase in patients in the hospital where the 42-year-old nurse practitioner worked. It wasn’t due to the early afternoon sunsets or the fact that she both arrived and left work in darkness. What she most hated about winter was influenza. She wasn’t concerned about getting the flu – she hadn’t had it since she was a teenager – but this was the season when flu shots were being pushed, and she did not want one.
Until two years ago, this hadn’t been a problem. Ms F had spent the early part of her career working with a physician in a small practice. Whether Ms F had or hadn’t gotten her flu shot was never questioned, and no one ever pushed her to get one. In fact, Ms F had not had a flu shot in decades. She was not against them in other people – she certainly understood their value and their ability to save lives. But she herself felt very strongly about what she put into her body.
Ms F was a vegetarian who ate a whole-food-based diet, eschewing processed foods and added sugar, fats, and chemicals. She exercised daily and treated her body as a temple, avoiding alcohol and drugs. Her holistic lifestyle was very important to her, as was keeping her body as chemical-free as possible.
Two years ago, she left the small medical practice and took a job in the gastroenterology department of her local hospital. The first October that she was there, she noticed how the hospital went into full flu-shot mode. “Have you had your flu shot yet?” read signs all over the break room and around the hospital. Human Resources arranged to have free flu shots made available to all employees, and even gave employees time off to get theirs. Hospital employees cheerfully walked around proudly displaying their “I got my flu shot!” stickers. Ms F kept her head down and went about her business.
But this most recent September, the hospital instituted a new policy requiring all staff to get the flu shot. Staff members who had religious issues precluding the flu shot were required to bring in a letter from their religious leader, and those who were granted a religious exemption would be required to wear a mask when dealing with patients during flu season.
Again, signs went up in the breakroom, and staff was on hand to give flu shots to employees. Ms F cared for her patients and avoided the break room. After a few weeks, her manager asked whether she had gotten the flu shot yet. Ms F replied that she had not, nor did she intend to. Her manager reiterated the new policy requiring all employees to get the shot or bring in proof of a religious preclusion.
“They are going to fire anyone who doesn’t either get the shot or bring in proof of a religious exemption,” warned her manager.
When another several weeks had passed and Ms F had neither been vaccinated nor brought in a letter explaining a religious objection, she was called to the Human Resources department. There she was asked specifically what religious belief precluded her getting the flu shot.
“I live a holistic lifestyle,” replied Ms F. “I treat my body as though it were holy, and I avoid unnecessary chemicals, including food additives, alcohol, or drugs. I strongly believe the flu shot is unnecessary for me.”
“That’s not a religion,” said the Human Resources manager. “You have 2 weeks to either bring in a letter from your religious leader or to get the flu shot. Otherwise, I’m sorry, but you will be terminated from your position.”
After 2 weeks passed without Ms F doing either, she was called into a meeting in the Human Resources department again and was officially terminated. She left the hospital angry that she was being precluded from treating her own body the way she wanted to without having to lose her job.
Ms F found an attorney and sued the hospital in federal court for religious discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. In response, the hospital filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that it should be dismissed on its face because Ms F never identified a sincerely held belief that fit the definition of a religion. The court agreed and dismissed the case, holding that a healthy, holistic lifestyle is not a religion, and that since Ms F’s objection to the flu shot was not religious, it was not protected by the Civil Rights act.