Although the legal value of this specific discrimination case is technically limited only to the Philadelphia area, local healthcare providers should take note. While the underlying civil rights principles in the consent judgment do not demonstrate new law, they do represent a nationwide trend in EEOC (Equal Opportunity Employment Commission) cases.
Importantly, the EEOC stance on religious accommodation recently received a boost from the Supreme Court on the issue of religious accommodation in the workplace. The Supreme Court agreed with the EEOC that Abercrombie and Fitch unreasonably refused to hire an applicant who wore a hijab because the company felt such garb conflicted with its hip image. This example is just one in which the EEOC has lately proven to be more inclined to sue over religious discrimination when it concludes an employer has made an insufficient effort to accommodate religious beliefs. The trend may evolve beyond retail with implications for other industries – including medicine.
The manner in which the St. Vincent hospital handled the employee religious exemptions was problematic. The biggest problem arose when the hospital required a letter from a clergyman supporting the employee’s belief. For some of those employees, the perception was that the hospital decided that their belief was unreasonable or insincere.
The problem is, generally, the law does not allow employers to subject the employees to any sort of religious sincerity test – like a confirming letter by a clergyman. Put another way, an employer cannot decide if employee religious beliefs are genuine. Instead, the only question is whether a religious accommodation would pose an undue burden on the employer.
- The employer must have a process to consider whether reasonable accommodations can be provided for a religious belief which conflicts with a business need. That does mean that reasonable alternatives should be considered. That does not mean that any accommodation is reasonable.
- If the employer offers a religious exemption for flu vaccines, it must administer it evenly, without preference for any particular religious belief.
- This area of the law is complex. If you consider termination of any employee based on any fact pattern that could be related to a religious exemption, consult your employment attorney first.