The worker, Barnell Williams, sought an exemption from the mandate in 2016 on account of her belief that vaccines violate the Bible’s teachings on the sacredness of the human body, according to the DOJ.
Williams pleaded her case directly to the facility’s highest-ranking official, but her request was denied allegedly because she could not produce a letter from a religious leader attesting to her belief. Ultimately, she acquiesced.
“Williams suffered severe emotional distress from receiving the flu shot in violation of her religious beliefs, including withdrawing from work and her personal life, suffering from sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of ‘going to Hell’ because she had disobeyed the Bible by receiving the shot,” the DOJ alleged in a lawsuit filed this week against the facility on Williams’ behalf.
The suit accused the facility of engaging in unlawful religious discrimination and failing to reasonably accommodate Williams’ religious belief—allegations which county leadership denied.
Requiring employees to submit a letter from their clergy could prove problematic because some workers, like Williams, hold religious beliefs without being part of an organized religious group, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Compliance Manual explains.
“Religion includes not only traditional, organized religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but also religious beliefs that are new, uncommon, not part of a formal church or sect, only subscribed to by a small number of people, or that seem illogical or unreasonable to others,” the manual states.
The DOJ suit notes that the Lasata Care Center changed its policy after Williams filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2016 and that it no longer requires a clergy letter.
How to employ safeguards
Prabhu—who was unaware of the Lasata Care Center case this week—says Essentia did not require employees seeking a religious exemption to submit a letter from a religious leader. Instead, it asked them to explain how the vaccine would contradict their deeply held views.
Steven Porter is an associate content manager and Strategy editor for HealthLeaders, a Simplify Compliance brand.