Michigan Hospital Settles With EEOC for Denying Religious Exemption

Mar 8, 2024

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – The Michigan-based hospital Trinity Health Grand Rapids, formerly known as Mercy Health St. Mary’s, recently agreed in a consent decree to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which alleged the hospital improperly denied a job applicant’s request for a religious exemption to the flu shot. Trinity Health has since discontinued its mandatory flu shot policy and agreed in the settlement to pay $50,000 in damages. As part of the settlement, the hospital must train its senior leaders and human resources employees on Title VII’s religious protections.  

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, even though the hospital’s former flu shot policy allowed for a religious exemption, the hospital determined the applicant’s articulated religious beliefs were “insufficient” to grant the exemption and denied it without an explanation. Trinity Health, which had made a conditional job offer to the applicant, then rescinded that job offer and did not give the applicant an opportunity to address the concerns with his request. The lawsuit alleged the hospital violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and committed religious discrimination by “arbitrarily” denying the exemption with “reckless indifference” to the applicant’s protected rights.

The EEOC is a federal agency established under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to investigate workplace discrimination complaints and enforce civil rights laws meant to prevent discriminatory practices, including religious discrimination for job applicants and employees. Title VII requires employers to make “reasonable” accommodations for religious employees unless the accommodation presents an “undue hardship” on the employer. In March 2022, the EEOC provided updated guidance on how an employer can determine an employee’s religious sincerity. The guidance advises that the sincerity of a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility” and is “usually not in dispute.” Employees also do not need to use any “magic words” when making a request and employers should “proceed on the assumption” that a religious exemption request is based on a sincere belief unless they have evidence that the employee has acted inconsistent with the professed belief.

“If an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, the employer would be justified in making a limited factual inquiry and seeking additional supporting information,” stated the EEOC. 

However, the EEOC alleged Trinity Health failed to make this “factual inquiry” or ask questions and work with the job applicant before making a final decision on the exemption. 

According to the EEOC’s website, the agency received 13,814 complaints in fiscal year 2022 from workers alleging illegal religious discrimination, which is up sharply from 2,111 complaints in the previous year. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Federal law requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs unless the employer can show that doing so will result in an undue hardship. Employees should never have to choose between their faith and their job.” 

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