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On April 27, 2022, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit Court ruled in Together Employees, by Individual Representatives v. Mass. Gen. Brigham Inc. (2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 11379), that a hospital system may require its workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine over its employees’ religious objections as a term of continued employment.
The company in question operates fourteen hospitals and several other medical facilities across Massachusetts, employs thousands of physicians, nurses, and other individuals, and treats approximately 1.5 million patients each year. In June 2021, the company decided to require all of its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they qualified for a medical or religious exemption. Following the deadline for compliance, six employees were terminated for refusing the vaccine. Another worker resigned, and one worker eventually received the vaccination. These employees filed suit, claiming they were entitled to a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement.
The First Circuit agreed with the District Court of Massachusetts’ decision that the workers failed to prove they would suffer “irreparable harm” without exemption from the employer’s vaccination mandate. The First Circuit also rejected the claim that the employer’s vaccine mandate violated Constitutional rights protecting the free exercise of religion since the employer was neither a state actor nor bound by the Free Exercise Clause.
The First Circuit’s decision is significant because religious beliefs are frequently cited by employees as a basis for exemption from receiving the vaccination. The holding in Together Employees arms employers with the foundation for refusing to rubberstamp a request for religious exemption. Instead, the worker must engage in the interactive process with its employer and ultimately show irreparable harm to overcome the vaccine mandate.