A complaint filed by a federal agency is accusing Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., of religious discrimination and violating federal law for firing three workers who refused to adhere to the hospital's flu vaccine requirement and declined the shot.
Local media outlets report the lawsuit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was filed in U.S. District Court in Asheville.
According to the complaint, hospital officials denied religious-exemption requests from three employees asking that they be released from Mission's annual flu-vaccine requirement and fired them when they refused the vaccine. The lawsuit said Mission's human resources department rejected the exemption requests because the workers missed a Sept. 1 deadline to submit their requests.
"Under federal law, employers must attempt a fair balance between an employee's right to practice his or her religion and the operation of their business," Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for EEOC's Charlotte District Office, said in a statement.
"An arbitrary deadline does not protect an employer from its obligation to provide a religious accommodation," Barnes said in the statement. "An employer must consider, at the time it receives a request for a religious accommodation, whether the request can be granted without undue burden."
A Mission spokeswoman said the hospital's policy exists to protect patients and help doctors deliver care.
"Our flu vaccination policy, like so many other health care providers' flu policies, includes a religious exemption for individuals who file for an exemption by a certain date," said Rowena Buffett Timms, Mission's senior vice president of government and community relations.
"This exemption has a timeline that corresponds to flu season, and staff who fail to file despite months of advance notice with reminders of the deadline, are subject to the terms of our well-publicized policy," she said.
Religious beliefs by former Mission employees Christine Bolella, Melody Mitchell and Titus Robinson forbid receiving vaccines, according to the complaint.
Bolella is a practicing member of the Christian Church of the Nazarene, according to the complaint. In late 2012, Bolella received a flu vaccination because she did not know she had an option, according to the complaint. The following year, she requested and was denied a religious exemption, according to the lawsuit said.
The complaint describes Mitchell is a Christian who believes that her body is a temple based on her interpretation of the Bible. Robinson is a Muslim who believes "vaccinations and inoculations are artificial, unproven, and unsafe medical processes which are contrary to his religious beliefs," the lawsuit said.
Mission officials from 2012-15 also suspended without pay one or more additional employees with similar religious beliefs because they did not receive a flu vaccination by the before the deadline, according to the lawsuit.