Employee’s NJ Refusal of Flu Vaccine Protected by the First Amendment

A NJ refusal of flu vaccine at Hackettstown Community Hospital caused the hospital to fire a nurse who refused a flu vaccination for personal health reasons.  But the hospital permitted other employees to refuse the vaccine on religious grounds.

A New Jersey appellate court ruled that exempting employees due to religious reasons while firing this employee due to a secular reason is “unrelated to public health issues, patient safety concerns, or scientifically valid reasons for the containment of the flu virus. The religion exemption merely discriminates against an employee’s right to refuse to be vaccinated based only on purely secular reasons.”  In ruling, the court cited New Jersey Supreme Court precedent that “government may not, under the First Amendment, prefer one religion over another or religion over non-religion but must remain neutral on both scores.”

The case is Valent v. Board of Review.  The whole issue arose when Ms. Valent applied for unemployment benefits and was denied because the hospital alleged that she engaged in misconduct by refusing the vaccine. The court held that she did not engage in misconduct and ruled that she was entitled to receive unemployment benefits.  The Appellate Division did not comment on whether her termination was wrongful; it limited its opinion solely to whether she was entitled to benefits.

This could potentially lead to claims filed pursuant to the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination for terminations related to an employee’s refusal to obtain a vaccine.  We are not aware of any cases currently pending in New Jersey on this topic that were filed under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  We will update this article in the event that any cases are filed.

Castronovo & McKinney is a full service employment law firm serving New Jersey courts specializing in discrimination, sexual harassment, severance and retaliation. For further help regarding NJ refusal of flu vaccine please contact Castronovo & McKinney at 973-920-7888.