Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomWritten by Don Byrd

Laws and policies seeking to accommodate objections to vaccines based on religious beliefs are increasingly creating discrimination issues for courts and employers. Can persons receiving an exemption be treated differently for lacking disease-spreading protection? Are persons who object to vaccination requirements for non-religious reasons entitled to an exemption where religious exemptions are available?

Via Religion Clause, two recent cases address these questions.

In Philips v. City of New York (pdf), a federal judge rejected the First Amendment claims of parents who argue their children are being improperly discriminated against after obtaining religious exemptions to vaccination requirements.  The school district accommodates religion-based vaccination refusals, when accompanied by extensive documentation detailing and supporting the religious objection. But it requires those students receiving an accommodation to stay home from school whenever a classmate acquires a vaccine-protected illness. The parents maintain this rule essentially excludes them from school based upon their religious beliefs.

The First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, the judge ruled, does not provide a right to be exempt from vaccination requirements. The vaccination policies, he continued, are well within the State’s power. Because the State is not required to accommodate religious objections, its policies regarding the accommodations it chooses to grant are acceptable.

In Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor, a New Jersey Appeals Court ruled that a hospital employee fired for refusing a vaccination requirement is entitled to unemployment benefits because the hospital offers religious exemptions it refused to offer the employee, who objected for non-religious reasons. That discrimination, the Court held, without proper justification violates the First Amendment.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion (pdf):

The net outcome of the Board’s ruling unconstitutionally violated appellant’s freedom of expression by endorsing the employer’s religion-based exemption to its flu vaccination policy.

By exempting employees who can produce religion-based documentation, the employer’s flu vaccination policy is clearly not exclusively driven by health-related concerns. The Board cannot therefore accept the policy as a proper basis to find appellant committed an act of insubordination of sufficient magnitude to render her disqualified for unemployment compensation benefits

With requests for exemptions from vaccination requirements on the rise, and religion-based exemptions often available, we are likely to see more disputes on this front going forward.