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Queen's University
 

Wilson

When does religious accommodation become undue hardship?

Facts

Mrs Wilson, a registered nurse, started working at the Peterborough Civic hospital in 1973. From 1976 to 1981, she worked in the intensive care unit, where one of her duties was "hanging blood" for blood transfusions.  When, in 1977, she became a Jehovah's Witness, her creed required her to study the Bible, and to live her life according to her personal interpretation of that text.  By 1980, after intensive Bible study, she had come to the conclusion that "hanging blood" was an "unclean act" that was strictly prohibited by God.  From 1980 to the middle of 1981, therefore, she refused to hang blood and always asked other nurses to fulfill this duty for her. One day, however, two of her colleagues refused to accommodate her, and although she was eventually able to find a nurse willing to do this task, she was obliged to disclose the incident, along with her religious beliefs, to her supervisor. When, in subsequent discussions, Mrs. Wilson stated that she would continue to refuse to hang blood, the hospital dismissed her for refusing to do work for which she was hired. An arbitrator found that the hospital had discriminated against Mrs. Wilson on the ground of religion, and that it had failed in its duty to accommodate her. (RE:Peterborough Civic Hospital and Ontario Nurses Association 3 L.A.C. (3d) 21 2001)

Questions

  1. Does the refusal to hang blood constitute a religious requirement under Human Rights Law?
  2. Does the requirement that every registered nurse hang blood discriminate adversely against Mrs. Wilson?
  3. Is this occupational requirement reasonably necessary for the safety of patients and smooth operation of the Hospital?
  4. Is there a way to accommodate Mrs. Wilson ?
  5. Did the Hospital discriminate against Mrs. Wilson on the ground of religion?

Rulings

  1. Yes
  2. Yes.
  3. Yes, in part.
  4. Yes
  5. Yes

Reasoning:

  1. All Jehovah Witnesses are obligated, by faith, to live their lives according to their personal interpretations of the Bible. Mrs. Wilson, a Jehovah's Witness,  understood, and sincerely believed, that the Bible prohibited her from hanging blood. Therefore, Mrs. Wilson was obligated by faith not to fulfill the duty of hanging blood.
  2. In requiring all registered nurses to hang blood, the hospital is indirectly discriminating against those nurses, such as Mrs. Wilson, who can not, for religious reasons, hang blood.
  3. In a hospital setting, an occupational requirement is reasonably necessary where patient safety and operational efficiency would be negatively affected if the requirement were not fulfilled. In intensive care and emergency wards, it is reasonably necessary that all nurses be able to hang blood, given the frequency of blood transfusions, the unpredictability of the work environment, and the probability that any nurse might eventually find herself in a critical situation where she, alone, would have to hang blood for a patient. In other wards, however, it is not reasonably necessary that all nurses be able to hang blood, given the infrequency of blood transfusions, the higher predictability of the work environment and the improbability that any one nurse might eventually find herself in a critical situation where she, alone, would have to hang blood for a patient.
  4. To accommodate Mrs. Wilson, therefore, the hospital should have placed her in a ward other than the emergency and intensive care units, and provided her with documentation alerting her co-workers that she has been relieved of the duty to hang blood.
  5. Since the hospital did nothing to accommodate Mrs. Wilson, its requirement that all nurses hang blood is not a bona fide occupational requirement, and the discrimination against Mrs. Wilson is illegal under Human Rights Law.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada. K7L 3N6. 613.533.2000