Addressing the Religious-Objection Conundrum of Mandated Hospital Influenza Vaccination

In April 2016 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Mission Hospital, a large North Carolina health system, after it denied employee requests for religious exemptions from an influenza-vaccination requirement. The lawsuit, which alleges that the hospital violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is one of a trio of lawsuits in the past two years in which the EEOC has intervened to challenge vaccination mandates for health-care workers. Facing a full-blown trial in February, the hospital agreed to settle the case on January 12, compensating the employees and revising its vaccination mandate policy.

Michelle Mello, PhD, JD, a professor of health research and policy and professor of law, and her colleague James A. Sonne, JD, an associate professor of law and director of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic, write in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine that the EEOC litigation “is cause for unease” among the growing number of hospitals with mandatory influenza-vaccination policies. Their article is co-authored with Douglas J. Opel, MD, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

“These policies are an important public-health strategy since vaccination rates for health-care workers continue to fall short of the Healthy People 2020 target of 90 percent,” the authors write. “But they create thorny problems when it comes to exemptions. In particular, when and how must health-care workers’ religious objections be accommodated to conform to the law?”

The paper comes during what could be the worst flu season since the 2009 swine flu pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that this influenza season has claimed the lives of 37 children and is on track to rival the 2014-2015 flu season. The CDC estimates that 34 million Americans got the flu that season; more than 700,000 were hospitalized and about 56,000 people died.

So far this season, an influenza A virus called H3N2 has been the most common form of influenza. Preliminary estimates suggest that this season’s influenza vaccine is about 40 percent effective. Yet antibodies made in response to vaccination with a certain set of influenza viruses can sometimes provide protection against different but related viruses. In the discussion that follow, Mello and Sonne answer questions about their research and findings.

Q: What prompted you to undertake this research and write about the subject?

Mello: More and more hospitals are mandating their employees get vaccinated against influenza. This is good policy: influenza is a serious disease and voluntary programs have had disappointing results. Having a policy that requires health-care workers to be vaccinated helps protect employees themselves but also the patients they take care of, who are often at high risk of serious complications from influenza. We wrote this article to help make hospitals aware of potential legal challenges based on religious discrimination claims and help them ensure their own mandates are well-written and reasonably applied in order to avoid legal challenge and maintain a healthy and productive workplace.

Michelle M. Mello
Stanford Law Professor Michelle Mello

Q: Did anything surprise you while conducting your research?

Mello: Yes. First, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the three latest lawsuits on behalf of the employee. That’s unusual; the EEOC typically only injects itself into an individual employee’s dispute when it perceives that the employee’s case presents an issue of public concern.

Second, there have been about 15 cases filed between 2011 and 2016 that have challenged hospital influenza vaccination mandates on religious grounds, and most of them didn’t get thrown out by the judge—they were settled, or are heading toward trial. This indicates a need to understand the claims made by these lawsuits so that hospitals can avoid future legal challenges. When we looked at the plaintiffs’ grievances, we saw some pitfalls that can be easily avoided if hospitals are attentive to what the law requires and what seems to provoke employees to sue. For example, some hospitals were unduly rigid, to the point of seeming arbitrary, in enforcing deadlines or reviewing exemption requests.

Q: Is it common for hospitals to have influenza vaccination requirements for their employees?

Mello: Many hospitals do, and some states require it. Evidence suggests that these requirements are effective at increasing vaccination rates of their employees. However, hospitals’ requirements vary, with some allowing their employees to opt out of getting the influenza vaccine for religious reasons and others only allowing opt-outs if the employee has a medical contraindication to influenza vaccination, such as having experienced a severe allergic reaction to a prior dose of the vaccine or having an allergy to a component of the vaccine.

Q: Why allow religious exemptions to employer vaccination requirements at all?

Sonne: One reason might simply be to defuse perceptions of coercion and enhance the sustainability and acceptability of the requirements. In addition, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ religious practices unless doing so presents an undue hardship for the employer. Carefully crafted religious exemptions to influenza-vaccination requirements are a strategy that employers might need to use to avert religious-discrimination claims.

James A. Sonne
Professor James A. Sonne

A small proportion of workers may want to serve in the health-care field but nonetheless feel very strongly about not receiving the vaccine as a matter of their religious faith. Depending on the context, accommodating those sincere beliefs doesn’t necessarily impact public health and, arguably, it’s a better use of hospitals’ time and resources to focus on getting the vaccine to the vast majority of unvaccinated workers who don’t object but just haven’t gotten around to being vaccinated. Again, we’re not talking about a large group of people who both work in the industry and have these religious conflicts.

Q: A new civil rights division at the Department of Health and Human Services aims to protect health-care workers who refuse to provide services that violate their religious beliefs. Will there be more support now for health-care workers wanting to opt out from influenza vaccine for religious reasons?

Sonne: This is a good question, but the answer is unclear so far. The “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” will be part of HHS’s already-established Office of Civil Rights. It will be charged with enforcing laws in the health-care field that forbid religious discrimination or require accommodation of religion—which certainly expresses an enforcement priority in this area of law. That said, the division doesn’t appear to create any additional legal duties but is meant only to enforce existing laws. And its creation also appears to have been motivated more by concerns about having to provide services that some clinicians find morally objectionable, like abortion, which arguably is a different situation. We’ll see.

Q: Are health-care organizations struggling to get their employees vaccinated against influenza?

Mello: HHS’s Healthy People 2020 goal is to have 90 percent or more of health-care personnel vaccinated against influenza. Recent estimates show that only about 78 percent of health-care personnel got vaccinated during the flu 2016-17 season, so we are falling short of that goal. The CDC recommends that all health-care personnel receive an annual influenza vaccination.

Q: Why do some health-care personnel choose not to get vaccinated against influenza?

Mello: Studies have shown that some of the primary deterrents to immunization are concerns related to the safety and efficacy of the influenza vaccine, despite the fact that each year the vaccine undergoes a review by FDA to assure its safety and potency before it is approved for immunization of the public.  Health-care workers also may underestimate their risk of getting the flu or the risk they pose to their patients if they get sick—or they may simply be busy enough that they don’t prioritize getting vaccinated.

The fact is that healthy adults can pass the influenza virus to someone else one day before symptoms begin, and they can continue to infect others up to five days after getting sick. Therefore, it is possible for a healthy adult to unknowingly spread the virus to patients at high risk for serious complications from influenza.

Q: What did you find in your analysis of the lawsuits?

Mello: We found some clarity regarding the type of belief that qualifies for a religious exemption under Title VII. One court that dismissed a lawsuit, for example, stated that a religious belief can’t simply be a personal moral code or something specific to vaccines. Rather, it must relate to ultimate questions about life, purpose and death. Providing a religious belief definition in hospital policy and explaining what does and doesn’t qualify should help reduced misguided requests and lawsuits.

Sonne: We also found that employers can satisfy their legal obligation to reasonably accommodate workers’ religious beliefs in a variety of ways aside from granting exemptions from vaccination, but should try to find the least onerous option that still protects patients. Tailoring accommodations to the specific individual based on, for example, how much contact they have with patients is good policy.

Finally, we found that, as in so many other litigation contexts, lawsuits in this area are often inspired by a feeling by the affected employees that the processes used to weigh their opt-out requests just weren’t fair. Hospitals can, therefore, avert problems by affording employees a reasonable opportunity to explain their deeply held religious beliefs, avoiding unnecessary or overly rigid administrative procedures and rules, explaining their reasons for denying exemptions and treating religious objectors with respect.

Michelle M. Mello is Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and Professor of Health Research and Policy at Stanford School of Medicine. Jim Sonne is the founding director of Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic, the only full-time program in the country where students learn the practice of law through supervised litigation in that field.