Legal Background

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees against discrimination on a number of traits, including religion. The protection works similarly to the Americans With Disabilities Act; it states that someone with a religious objection to a workplace policy can request reasonable accommodation for his or her beliefs or practices. Typical accommodations would be flexible scheduling to avoid someone having to work on their religion’s holy day or exceptions to company dress code to allow for religious head coverings. The hospital in question actually had an accommodation in place for those with religious objections that would allow them to wear a mask during flu season. However, all of these accommodations are based on a sincerely held religious belief.

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In this case, although the court noted that Ms F clearly had a sincere and strongly held belief, it was not based on religion and thus not protected by Title VII.

Protecting Yourself

It is important to note that courts have recognized nontraditional religious beliefs under certain circumstances. For example, the Third Circuit has recognized nontraditional “religious” beliefs if the beliefs address “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters,” if there are signs of a ‘belief-system,’ or if the belief occupies a place in the person’s life parallel to that filled by God in a traditionally religious person.”

On another note, an employee can generally get a medical exemption (rather than a religious one) from a vaccine if that person can prove (via a physician) that they have an allergy to the immunization or some other reason why it would be dangerous to his or her health. However, that exemption is entirely different from an objection based on religious principles.

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If you have an objection to the flu shot for either medical or religious reasons, be sure you know what your employer’s policy is, particularly before you accept the job.

Ms Latner, a former criminal defense attorney, is a freelance medical writer in Port Washington, NY.