A Pennsylvania health center has agreed to pay $300,000 in back pay and compensatory damages after firing six employees who objected to a flu vaccination policy on religious grounds, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has announced.

As McKnight’s Senior Living previously reported, the EEOC in September sued Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, PA, claiming that the system violated federal law when it terminated the workers’ employment instead of accommodating them.

In October 2013, the EEOC said, the health center began mandating seasonal influenza shots for all employees except those granted exemptions for medical or religious reasons. In lieu of being vaccinated, those who received exemptions were required to wear face masks while having patient contact during flu season. Employees who refused the vaccine but were not granted an exemption by the health center were fired, according to EEOC’s lawsuit.

From October 2013 to January 2014, the commission said, six employees requested religious exemptions from vaccination, and the health center denied their requests. When the employees continued to refuse the vaccine based on their religious beliefs, their employment was terminated. During this same time period, however, the health center granted 14 vaccination exemption requests based on medical reasons, the lawsuit alleged.

Under the terms of a consent decree announced Dec. 23, the health center must grant exemptions to its flu shot policy on religious grounds unless doing so poses an undue hardship on operations. The health center also must notify employees of their right to request religious exemption and must train key personnel regarding reasonable accommodation provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII prohibits employers from rejecting accommodation requests based on their disagreement with an employee’s belief; their opinion that the belief is unfounded, illogical or inconsistent in some way; or their conclusion that an employee’s belief is not an official tenet or endorsed teaching of any particular religion or denomination.

A Saint Vincent spokesman told McKnight’s that the health center disagrees with the EEOC’s claims but agreed to the settlement to avoid further litigation. “We continue to believe that annual vaccination for influenza among healthcare professionals is in the best interests of our patients and our employees, and we will continue to provide easy access to vaccinations at Saint Vincent and across our organization for the many employees who voluntarily receive them each year,” he said.