Title VII and Immunizations—When is it Religious Discrimination?

A case from 2012 in Indiana prompts the question of mandatory immunizations at work, and whether the refusal to receive an immunization shot is protected as a part of a religious identity.

At Indiana University Health’s Gosehn Hospital, the hospital informed its staff in September 2012 that all staff members had to receive a flu vaccination. The hospital allowed staff to apply for an exemption if they felt it was necessary. A total of eight employees were ultimately fired for not meeting the exemption based on religion—Ethel, a 22 year veteran nurse; Joyce, who had dedicated 27 years to the hospital; and Sue, who had worked for the hospital throughout the last 40 years.

So, if you refuse an immunization due to your religion, can you get terminated? The answer is: maybe. Title VII, the federal policy regarding discrimination, has no specific law governing immunizations exemptions, so there is no explicit statement expounding on the legality of a termination stemming from an immunization refusal.

Employees can assert their right to refuse an immunization due to religion. One may ask for a reasonable accommodation, but if it creates an undue burden on the employer, they also have the potential right to refuse the accommodation and/or terminate the employee has a result.