Sunday, December 17, 2017

What is "religion" anyway? Third Circuit weighs in.

Title VII prohibits workplace discrimination based on religion, and requires reasonable accommodation of sincerely held religious beliefs. So, what is "religion" in this context? The Third Circuit recently issued a precedential decision on this issue in Fallon v. Mercy Catholic Medical Center.

Fallon was an intake worker for the medical center, which required employees to be inoculated against the flu. Fallon refused because he believed the vaccine did more harm than good. Although the hospital exempted some employees based on disability or religion, it refused to excuse Fallon and terminated him.

Fallon filed a religious discrimination/accommodation complaint against the hospital. The District Court dismissed the case because Fallon's beliefs were not religious in nature. On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed.

What is religion?

The Third Circuit did not break new ground here, relying on past precedent:
In United States v. Seeger . . . the Supreme Court put forward a standard for determining whether a belief is religious: “[D]oes the claimed belief occupy the same place in the life of the objector as an orthodox belief in God holds in the life of one clearly qualified for exemption?” . . . . 
Judge Adams proposed a modern definition of religion [in the concurring opinion in Malnak v. Yogi]. We later adopted this definition in Africa v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, describing it as follows: 
"First, a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters. Second, a religion is comprehensive in nature; it consists of a belief system as opposed to an isolated teaching. Third, a religion often can be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs." 
This definition has met with considerable agreement.
That all sounds good, but can sometimes be difficult to apply in practice.

Why were Fallon's belief's not a religion?

Fallon believed that "one should not harm [his] own body" and that the flu vaccine would do just that. To Fallon, getting the vaccine would "violate his conscience as to what is right and wrong." He even drew support from comparable Buddhist teachings. Yet, he lost. Why?

The Court sums up in two succinct paragraphs:
Not official use.
It does not appear that these beliefs address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters, nor are they comprehensive in nature. Generally, he simply worries about the health effects of the flu vaccine, disbelieves the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people, and wishes to avoid this vaccine. In particular, the basis of his refusal of the flu vaccine—his concern that the flu vaccine may do more harm than good—is a medical belief, not a religious one. He then applies one general moral commandment (which might be paraphrased as, “Do not harm your own body”) to come to the conclusion that the flu vaccine is morally wrong. This one moral commandment is an “isolated moral teaching”; by itself, it is not a comprehensive system of beliefs about fundamental or ultimate matters. Thus, we do not believe that either of the first two factors in Africa is met here.  
Fallon fares no better under the third factor. Fallon’s views are not manifested in formal and external signs, such as “formal services, ceremonial functions, the existence of clergy, structure and organization, efforts at propagation, observation of holidays and other similar manifestations associated with the traditional religions.”

A single strongly held belief - even if it's about right/wrong and a matter of conscience (i.e. "one general moral commandment") - does not constitute a religion under Title VII.

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