Following up on a post from last week on the issue of mandatory flu vaccine policies, the EEOC seems to be on a march to challenge any employer – particularly hospitals – that denies an employee a requested exemption from a mandatory flu shot for religious reasons.

Last week the EEOC sued Saint Vincent Health Center, a Pennsylvania hospital, claiming that the hospital had unlawfully fired six employees who were denied an exemption from the hospital’s mandatory flu vaccine policy. According to the complaint, the hospital allotted 14 other employees exemptions from the vaccine based on health reasons, but denied the requests of the employees for religious-based exemptions because they “did not provide proof of religious doctrine.” The health center says they have a vaccination policy that allows employees to apply for exemptions to receiving the vaccine based on health concerns or religious beliefs.

The EEOC alleges that from October 2013 to January 2014 six employees requested religious exemptions from Saint Vincent Health Center’s flu vaccination requirement based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and that the health center denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, the health center fired them.

Saint Vincent officials said in a statement that the hospital’s “mandatory flu vaccination policy allows employees to apply for an exemption to the policy based upon religious beliefs or health concerns. Requests for exemption are always given careful and appropriate consideration. We respectfully disagree with the (commission’s) position and characterization of how the employee claims outlined in this lawsuit were handled by the hospital.”

The hospital’s response is not surprising. In my experience of representing hospitals for many years, I sure that Saint Vincent Health Center did not take this action lightly, carefully considered this decision and believed that it had lawful, valid grounds for denying the exemption requests.

The EEOC, not surprisingly, is taking the employees’ side in this dispute. EEOC Regional Attorney Debra Lawrence stated, “In religious accommodation cases, the standard is not whether company officials agree with the employee’s religious beliefs or whether those beliefs are the recognized position or official doctrine of any particular religious organization or group…Absent proof establishing an undue hardship, federal law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations for sincerely held employee religious beliefs, even if some may consider those beliefs idiosyncratic. Title VII reflects our society’s belief that the conscience of the individual should be respected and that employers should avoid forcing workers to choose between keeping their jobs and adhering to their faith.”

EEOC District Director Spencer H. Lewis, Jr. added, “This is a classic example of how an employer could have accommodated an employee’s religious beliefs at no cost or disruption, but instead chose the costly route of discrimination.”

These statements reveal the agency’s very expansive view of the religious exemption requirement.

To argue for the other side, religious accommodation is important, but so is protecting a hospital’s patients. Healthcare employers are in a unique (and challenging) position, as they must be concerned with both accommodating their employees, but also protecting their patients against the flu. Elderly and very young patients, just to name two groups, can become severely ill if they contract the flu. Thus, the goal of every hospital is to maximize the number of employees who are vaccinated. For this and other reasons, it is important for a health care employer to make sure that an employee seeking a religious exemption does have a sincerely held religious belief and a valid ground for seeking the exemption.

As stated in my last blog post, given the EEOC’s aggressive position on this issue, it is critical for any employer who is going to deny an employee’s request for an exemption to first, carefully explore what accommodations can be offered to the employees, and second, document the reasons for the denial. If disciplinary action against an employee is contemplated, you should consult your legal counsel.

This remains an issue to watch as this season unfolds.