Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs and practices. Protection covers not only religious beliefs that are traditionally associated with some organized religion, but beliefs that may be new, uncommon, or not even part of an organized church or sect.
Courts sometimes are required to sort out whether a particular belief is “religious.” For example, an employee seeking accommodation for facial piercings contended she belonged to the Church of Body Modification, and a prisoner in Nebraska filed a lawsuit claiming that as a Pastafarian he was being prevented from worshipping the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Sometimes claims are more serious, but having a sincere and strongly held belief on a particular social or political or scientific issue does not make those beliefs religious for the purposes of federal anti-discrimination statutes. For example, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania recently ruled that a hospital employee fired for refusing to obtain a flu vaccination did not have a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII. Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr. of Se. Pa., E.D. Pa., No., 16-834, 8/9/16)
In 2012 Mercy Catholic Medical Center (“Mercy”) began requiring its employees to either obtain a flu vaccination or submit a form to obtain a medical or religious exemption. Employees who were granted exemptions were required to wear surgical masks during flu season. In 2012 and 2013, Paul Fallon, who was employed by Mercy as a Psychiatric Crisis Intake Worker, sought and received exemptions from the flu vaccine requirement after submitting a twenty-two page letter explaining his “sincerely held moral and ethical convictions.”
Fallon applied for exemption again in 2014, but this time he was denied. Fallon was instructed to provide a letter on official clergy letterhead supporting his religious exemption request. Fallon eventually submitted another exemption request along with a letter stating that he could not submit a letter on official clergy letterhead. Fallon explained that he could not obtain a signature from clergy because he is not a member of an organized religion. He further explained that he would not be able to explain the religious doctrine or practice that must accompany the exemption request. Fallon wrote, in part:
I call my belief system, “My Conscience” and it dictates what I must do to live in harmony with it. Not to do so, to act against it, to violate it, would be to commit a crime against oneself. Not to do so would entail a rejection of one’s autonomy and a surrendering of one’s body to others for their self-interest.
My body belongs to me and from this fact it follows that the right to make a medical risk decision belongs to me alone. This is why the ethical practice of medicine has as its foundation the concept of “informed consent” which is voluntary by definition as opposed to mandatory “informed consent.”
Fallon’s request for exemption was denied, and he was later terminated for failing to comply with the flu vaccination policy.
Fallon filed a federal court lawsuit alleging, among other things, that Mercy violated Title VII by discharging him because of his religion.
According to the Court, to establish a prima facie case of religious discrimination, Fallon was required to show that: (1) he holds a sincere religious belief that conflicts with a job requirement; (2) he informed his employer of the conflict; and (3) he was disciplined for failing to comply with the conflicting requirement. Mercy moved to dismiss the Title VII claim, arguing that Fallon’s complaint did not allege that he had any sincerely held religious belief. Fallon countered that while he does not belong to a religious congregation, his strongly held moral and ethical beliefs regarding the flu vaccination satisfy the definition of religious belief.
The Court had to decide whether Fallon’s beliefs are religious, and thus protected by the law. The Court used the framework developed by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Africa v. Commw. of Pa., 662 F.2d 1025 (3d Cir. 1981). In Africa, with regard to determining a whether a particular belief is religious, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals wrote:
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.
Id. at 1032.
Analyzing these three factors, the Court held that Fallon’s moral and ethical beliefs about the flu vaccination, regardless of how sincere or strongly those beliefs may be, are not religious. The Court wrote that Fallon’s “mindset is more personal and social than spiritual,” and characterized his letter as “a lengthy editorial on the effectiveness and propriety of vaccinations and the motivations of those who make and sell them.” Also, rather than being part of a comprehensive belief set, the Court noted that Fallon’s belief was singular, comparing Fallon’s opposition to the flu vaccine to other “single-faceted ideologies,” including Social Darwinism and vegetarianism, that would not qualify as religious. Finally, the Court found that Fallon’s belief system about vaccinations does not have the structural characteristics that would allow a determination that it is analogous to a traditionally recognized religions.
Fallon failed to state a claim for religious discrimination under Title VII, because his objections to the flu vaccination were found to be based on secular rather than religious philosophy. The Court held that a strongly held moral or ethical belief is not that same as a sincere religious belief, and holding otherwise “would potentially entitle anyone with ‘strongly held’ beliefs on any topic to protection under Title VII’s religious discrimination provision.”