Worker Feared ‘Going to Hell’ After Employer Forced Flu Shot (1)

From labor disputes cases to labor and employment publications, for your research, you’ll find solutions on Bloomberg Law®. Protect your clients by developing strategies based on Litigation...

By Michael J. Bologna

The Justice Department filed a religion-based discrimination lawsuit against a Wisconsin county over a policy that required health-care workers to provide notes from clergy members if they wanted an exemption from mandatory flu vaccinations.

The department alleges the policy constitutes religious discrimination and sued Ozaukee County March 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

The government alleges violations of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on behalf of Barnell Williams, a former certified nursing assistant at Lasata, a nursing care center owned by the county. Williams was compelled to receive a flu shot in October 2016, despite her “sincerely held religious belief that Bible-based scriptures prohibited flu shots,” the government said.

After receiving the vaccination, Williams suffered severe emotional distress and feared she was “going to Hell” for violating her religious principles. She left her duties at Lasata eight months after the dispute.

“When employees’ religious principles conflict with work rules, they should not have to choose between practicing their religion and keeping their jobs if a reasonable accommodation can be made without undue hardship to the employer,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore said in a statement. “Employers should take care not to craft policies that disfavor individuals because of their sincerely held religious beliefs or practices in violation of Title VII.”

Representatives of Ozaukee County didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s request for comment on the litigation.

Discriminatory Policy

Lasata employees could receive religious exemptions from the mandatory flu shot policy, but only with the help of a pastor, a priest, or some other member of the clergy, according to the complaint. The policy specified exemptions could be granted with a “written statement from their clergy leader supporting the exemption with a clear reason and explanation.” The policy further stated that any employee refusing a shot and failing to gain an exemption faced termination on the basis of “voluntary resignation.”

During a meeting with a supervisor, Williams objected to the flu shot based on her interpretation of the Bible forbidding foreign substances, including vaccinations, into her body because it is a “Holy Temple.” She further explained that she couldn’t provide a statement from a pastor because she wasn’t at that time affiliated with any church or organized religion.

Williams was prepared to provide a letter from family members and friends attesting to her sincere religious beliefs and faith practices, the government said. The supervisor refused to accept anything but a letter from a member of the clergy and warned Williams, “consider this your last day” if she refused the shot.

Without a written statement, Williams was forced to receive a shot, causing her to suffer “sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of ‘going to Hell’ because she had disobeyed the Bible by receiving the shot,” the government said.

No Undue Hardship

The DOJ also alleges Ozaukee County illegally denied a reasonable accommodation to Williams that would have permitted her to demonstrate her religious objections. The government said the employer could have easily accommodated Williams without encountering any “undue hardship.”

The lawsuit notes that Ozaukee and Lasata recently modified the flu vaccination policy, expanding the rules around the religious exemption. Letters from a member of the clergy are no longer required to gain the exemption.

The case is U.S. v. Ozaukee Cty., E.D. Wis., No. 2:18-cv-00343, 3/6/18.

Request Labor & Employment on Bloomberg Law