Eight nurses who were fired by their hospital-employer for refusing flu vaccines got national attention earlier this year when ABC News reported on the event. This brought much needed national attention to a trend rapidly sweeping the nation, that of hospitals requiring their employees to get flu shots or lose their jobs. A large percentage of healthcare workers object to the new policy, but most are getting the shot because they can’t afford to lose their jobs and are not aware of laws that could help them avoid the shot, or because they are afraid they’ll be fired just for asking for an exemption. We applaud ABC News for bringing national attention to this matter.
However, the article’s author misquoted me (a leading vaccine rights attorney) in a way that could put healthcare workers unnecessarily at risk if they rely on this article. Specifically, the article quoted me as saying: “Religion is legally broad under the First Amendment, so it could include any strongly held belief . . . the belief [that] flu shots are bad should suffice.” This is not true, and not what I said. First Amendment protections do NOT extend to “any strongly held belief,” they extend only to beliefs that are “religious in nature” as the law defines that phrase, and that are also sincerely held. As for the legal meaning of “religious in nature,” it takes a consultation to explain and explore that matter with clients individually so that they can put together a legally sound statement of religious beliefs opposed to immunizations that works for them and their particular situation. Rights vary according to the specific situation and circumstances, and to the laws of the relevant jurisdiction(s).
Of the approximately 150 healthcare workers in some 26 states that I assisted this past fall and early winter, the vast majority were successful, despite the fact that most of the hospitals had implemented unlawful vaccine exemption policies. The most difficult cases are the ones who first contact me after their employer has already rejected their exemption request. Unfortunately, most people who write a statement of religious beliefs opposed to immunizations without first learning what beliefs the law does and doesn’t protect unwittingly fall into one or more “legal pitfalls” that can undermine their exemption rights. This area of law is just not consistent with most people’s common sense approach. So, it is safest to get help from a knowledgeable attorney up front, as it can be difficult to “un-ring the bell,” as the saying goes, to recover from a rejection or your exemption request after you submit a statement that turns out to have a technical legal flaw.
The ABC News article did go on to correctly quote me as having said, “If your personal beliefs are religious in nature, then they are a protected belief [sic],” but that is only part of the equation; the beliefs must also be “sincerely held”—again, as the law defines that phrase. So, healthcare workers should NOT rely on the ABC article when considering their rights.
No offense is intended to the ABC News article’s author; the law in this area can be confusing. To the contrary, we appreciate ABC News for letting their readers know that some professionals feel so strongly about the matter that they are willing to lose their jobs to avoid flu shots. Indeed, the small number who lose their jobs represent a vastly larger number who object to mandatory flu vaccines but who simply can’t afford to sacrifice their jobs to prove it.
The above is for educational purposes only, and is not intended to be legal or medical advice.