In general, employers are not allowed to discriminate against employees on the basis of their religious beliefs. In other words, they can’t favor one employee over another because of which types of churches the employees attend or whether they attend church at all. Also, employers have a duty to accommodate religious beliefs if it won’t burden them. Whether or not your employer has a legal duty to accommodate your particular religious beliefs will be decided on a case by case basis. For example, the Supreme Court recently held that the chain Abercrombie & Fitch broke the law when it refused to hire an applicant wearing a headscarf, or hijab, because the company didn’t think her religious garment fit their “classic East Coast collegiate style.” Justice Antonin Scalia said “this is really easy” in deciding that there was no lawful reason for the company’s action.
Refusing to get a flu shot is different. Patricia Head worked as the activities director for Adams Farm Living, a skilled nursing and health care facility. Her job required her to interact with the mostly elderly residents on a regular basis. As a result of a flu outbreak in 2012, the facility required all employees to get a flu shot. Ms. Head asked to be exempt because she is a Seventh-day Adventist. The facility would only grant exemptions to those employees who were able to prove a medical reason that they were unable to receive the flu shot.
Ms. Head provided a letter from her chiropractor father that said he was concerned that the vaccine might compromise her immune system. Adams Farm Living refused to accept the letter and fired Head, and Head sued Adams Farm alleging religious discrimination.
A Guilford County Superior Court judge sided with Adams Farm, and granted it summary judgment, meaning that Head would not be permitted to take her claim to a jury. On August 18, 2015, the North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed. The Court held that Head’s termination was not based on her religion, but was for a non-discriminatory reason, her refusal to get a flu shot. The Court also found that the firing was based on a legitimate company safety policy. The Court rejected Head’s argument that the letter from her chiropractor father should have been given as much weight as a letter from a physician’s assistant.