NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- A nurse was unfairly denied unemployment benefits after she was fired for refusing a flu shot without claiming a religious or medical exemption, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Thursday.
The three-judge panel wrote that the hospital's policy of allowing religious or medical exemptions to the flu shot requirement "unconstitutionally discriminated against" plaintiff June Valent by rejecting her refusal to be vaccinated for secular reasons.
Valent was working as a nurse at Hackettstown Community Hospital in 2010 when the hospital's parent company began requiring employees to take the flu vaccine unless they had medical or religious reasons not to. Employees claiming an exemption were required to sign a form and provide documentation. Anyone refusing the vaccine was required to wear a mask while at work.
Valent declined the vaccine but didn't state a medical or religious reason, and agreed to wear a mask. She was terminated based on her refusal of the vaccine and disqualified for unemployment benefits by a Department of Labor board of review after several hearings and appeals from both sides.
The board concluded that the hospital demonstrated Valent had engaged in work-related misconduct by refusing the flu shot, according to Thursday's ruling.
The appellate judges concluded that the hospital violated Valent's right to freedom of expression by endorsing the religious-based exemption while denying her secular choice.
"By denying appellant's application to receive unemployment benefits based only on her unwillingness to submit to the employer's religion-based policy, the Board violated appellant's rights under the First Amendment," the panel wrote.
New Jersey doesn't require hospital employees to be vaccinated against the flu, but more and more hospitals are adopting mandatory policies, said Aline Holmes, senior vice president of clinical affairs for the New Jersey Hospital Association, a nonprofit trade organization.
"With this decision, we worry that hospitals and other health care providers are receiving conflicting messages from regulators and the judicial system when, in fact, our bottom-line goal is simply to protect patients during flu season," Holmes said in a statement.