On Friday, September 23, 2016, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania health system for allegedly firing six employees who refused flu vaccines. The complaint brings Title VII claims for failure to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs. Generally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits most employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

According to the EEOC’s filing, the health system defendant had a policy requiring seasonal flu vaccinations unless the employee had a religious or medical exemption. Those with approved exemptions were allowed to continue to work so long as they wore masks when in contact with patients.

The lawsuit claims that 14 medical exemptions were granted between October 2013 and January 2014, but six employees were denied religious accommodations during the same period. The EEOC alleges the six employees’ religious exemption requests were improperly denied, and the employees were illegally terminated when they continued to refuse the vaccinations.

A key issue in this case will be what standard employers must use to determine when a religious belief is protected. The EEOC’s position appears to be that any sincerely held belief must be accepted, even if it does not arise from any recognizable religion or the teachings of any particular faith. On this issue, the EEOC’s regional attorney 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.” The EEOC press release can be found here.

This case will be interesting to follow in light of the recent lawsuit seeking to enjoin the Health and Human Services’ (“HHS”) regulations implementing the Affordable Care Act’s non-discrimination provision. See our prior alert on this topic here. In the latter lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege the regulations should be struck for a number of reasons, including the issue of Title VII rights of employed providers whose religious beliefs are contrary to the HHS regulations’ non-discrimination mandates.

The EEOC’s lawsuit is a reminder for employers to be aware of the religious accommodation rights of employees and carefully analyze related risks when implementing corrective actions.

For more information on this topic, see our prior blog posts: Can Employees Refuse Vaccinations Because of Religious Beliefs?; The Flu and Mandatory Flu Shots – The Employer’s Dilemma; and Jury Awards $2.6 Million to Pharmacist with “Needle Phobia”.