By Linda C. Schoonmaker and Vanessa Rogers

Seyfarth Synopsis: Vaccinations have been widely debated over the past few years, leaving employers unclear about their obligations to accommodate employees whose religious beliefs conflict with them. Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a decision providing insight into vaccination accommodations and establishing favorable precedent for employers.

Specifically, the Fifth Circuit held that where an employee refused an employer-mandated vaccination and the employer offered a position transfer, the employer had reasonably accommodated the employee, despite the fact that the position had less desirable duties and hours and resulted in a loss in income for the employee. Additionally, the Court held that the employer’s decision to terminate the employee was not retaliatory and the accommodation proposal did not violate the employee’s right to freely exercise his religion, but instead offered him a way to freely exercise it.

Summary of the Case:

In Horvath v. City of Leander, Texas et. al, the plaintiff, an ordained Baptist minister and employee of the City of Leander, Texas (the “City”), objected to vaccinations mandated by the City as a tenet of his religion. Over the years, the City granted the plaintiff flu vaccination exemptions, but his request for an exemption to the TDAP vaccine, which immunizes from tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis or whopping cough, was denied, and culminated with his employment termination. The Fifth Circuit determined that the City had provided the plaintiff with a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs. Specifically, offering to reassign the plaintiff to the positon of code enforcement officer, a position which offered the same pay and benefits and did not require a vaccine, was a reasonable accommodation. The Court was unpersuaded by the plaintiff’s argument that the code enforcement officer position was “the least desirable position” in the department because of its duties and hours (which had normal business hours of Monday to Friday and occasional overtime on Saturdays, compared to the 24-hour shifts of his current position, driver/pump operators) or that the position was unreasonable because the schedule would prevent him from continuing his secondary employment, which would reduce his total income by half.

Relying upon Bruff v. North Mississippi Health Services. Inc., 244 F.3d 495 (5th Cir. 2001), a decision holding that a medical center had offered a reasonable accommodation to a counselor who sought to be excused from counseling on subjects that conflicted with her religious beliefs by allowing her 30 days and employment counselor assistance to find another position that did not conflict with her religious beliefs, the Fifth Circuit in Horvath found that while the plaintiff may prefer the hours and duties of traditional firefighting jobs, “Title VII does not restrict an employer to those means of accommodation that are preferred by employees” nor does the indirect loss of outside income.

Similarly, the Fifth Circuit found in favor of the City on the plaintiff’s retaliation claim, holding that the City had a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for terminating the plaintiff’s employment, his defiance of a direct order — failure to select an accommodation in lieu of the TDAP vaccine.

Finally, the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of the City on the plaintiff’ claim of violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 premised on violation of his First Amendment Free Exercise rights, finding that the second accommodation offered by the City — that the plaintiff “could remain in his current position if he agreed to wear personal protective equipment, including a respirator, at all times while on duty, submit to testing for possible disease when his health condition justified, and keep a log of his temperature” — did not violate his right to freely exercise his religion. Specifically, the Court found that the respirator requirement was not an official governmental policy as necessary to hold the City liable under § 1983, but one of two accommodations offered to him. Even if the requirement was a policy, the plaintiff’s right to freely exercise his religious beliefs was not burdened by the requirement, instead it provided a means by which the plaintiff could freely exercise his religion while maintaining his current job.

Employer Takeaways

The Fifth Circuit’s decision here is useful for employers navigating the murky waters of employee vaccinations and accommodations. Employers may accommodate religious beliefs which conflict with employer mandated vaccinations by offering employees positions that do not require vaccinations even if the offered position presents “less desirable” duties and hours and even if it results in a loss of outside income. Additionally, an employee’s deliberate refusal to accept a reasonable accommodation, may in fact constitute a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for an adverse action. Last, accommodations which provide options that would enable an employee to freely exercise his religion, such as the one in Horvath, do not violate an employee’s right to freely exercise his religion.

For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Counseling & Solutions Team or the Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.