By Joseph S. Murray IV

As flu season begins, so begin the arguments over accommodations for hospital employees whose religious (or sincerely held nontheistic) beliefs prohibit them from taking the flu vaccine. Two recent court decisions should help medical providers and employees better understand the Title VII requirements for religious accommodations and its definition of religion.

Here in North Carolina, the EEOC sued Mission Hospital after Mission terminated three employees who failed to timely request religious accommodations under Mission Hospital’s mandatory vaccination policy. The vaccination policy required accommodation requests to be submitted by Sept. 1 but employees did not have to be vaccinated until Dec. 1. EEOC v. Mission Hosp., Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124183, *6 (W.D.N.C. Aug. 17, 2017). Further, Mission gave a grace period for vaccinations but not for requesting an accommodation. Id. at *9. The court denied Mission’s summary judgment motion since it found that a jury could find that Mission violated Title VII by treating individuals seeking religious accommodations differently based on the staggered deadlines and inconsistently applied grace period.[1]

Let’s take a step back: What is religion? That question receives about 309,000,000 results on Google and is the focus of thousands of religious studies majors. Courts have waded into these fraught waters at times and some have found a host of belief systems to (potentially) be covered as a religion under Title VII: Onionhead, Alcoholics Anonymous, Science of Creative Intelligence Transcendental Meditation, and veganism to name just a few.[2]

Last month, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals used its “narrower definition of religion”[3] to determine that one man’s nontheistic belief system did not constitute a religion. Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Med. Ctr., No. 16-3573, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 25241 (3d Cir. Dec. 14, 2017). Paul Fallon worked for Mercy Catholic Medical Center until he refused a flu vaccination. Fallon applied for a religious accommodation under Mercy’s vaccination policy, but Mercy denied Fallon’s request because it determined Fallon’s beliefs were not religious.

As set out in the court’s opinion, Fallon followed a set of quotes from the founder of Buddhism:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.[4]

Fallon also believed that one should not harm one’s body. Since Fallon believed that the flu vaccine may do more harm than good, he told Mercy he could not take the vaccine without violating his beliefs.

The 3rd Circuit explored whether Fallon was following a nontheistic belief system that “occup[ies] in the life of that individual ‘a place parallel to that filled by . . . God’ in traditionally religious persons.” If so, then Fallon’s belief system would be protected by Title VII. The court followed a three-prong test for determining if Fallon’s belief system constituted a religion:

  1. Does the belief system address “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters”?
  2. Is the belief system “comprehensive in nature”?
  3. Does the belief system have formal and external signs, such as services, clergy, holidays, etc.?

In two short paragraphs, the 3rd Circuit found that Fallon’s belief system did not meet any of these factors and upheld the trial court’s order granting Mercy’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion. The court found that the selected quotes do not deal with “fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters,” nor were the quotes a comprehensive system. Finally, the court found that Fallon’s belief system did not manifest in any formal or external manner.

The 4th Circuit has not squarely addressed nontheistic belief systems under Title VII, but it appears to take a more liberal view of determining what is a religious belief under Title VII. Cf. EEOC v. Consol Energy, Inc., 860 F.3d 131, 142–43 (4th Cir. 2017). To the extent that the 4th Circuit and its district courts have addressed the issue, the only sure pronouncements are that “tenets or precepts of groups or entities that are more social and political than religious” and personal preferences or creeds do not constitute religious beliefs under Title VII. Andrews v. Va. Union Univ., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 40001 (E.D. Va. 2008). Ultimately, courts are to determine if an employee’s beliefs “are sincerely held and whether they are, in his own scheme of things, religious.” Chaplin v. Du Pont Advance Fiber Systems, 293 F. Supp. 2d 622, 629 (E.D. Va. 2003). Based on these cases, courts in the 4th Circuit would likely explore Fallon’s belief system in more depth than the 3rd Circuit—and at least let the evidentiary record be completed through discovery—but ultimately find his belief system to be more personal preference than religious.

[1] This case should go to trial in the near future.

[2] In order, EEOC v. United Health Programs of Am., Inc., 213 F. Supp. 3d 377 (E.D.N.Y. 2016); Warner v. Orange Cty. Dep’t of Prob., 115 F.3d 1068 (2d Cir. 1996); Malnak v. Yogi, 592 F.2d 197 (3d Cir. 1979); Chenzira v. Cincinnati Children’s Hosp. Med. Ctr., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182139 (S.D. Ohio 2012).

[3] EEOC v. United Health Programs of Am., Inc., 213 F. Supp. 3d at 396.

[4] Despite the central tenant of Fallon’s belief system to question everything, Fallon has failed to question if his Buddha quote is fake: https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/do-not-believe-in-anything-simply-because-you-have-heard-it/.