Fired Le­an­der worker sues city

Fire­fighter re­fused to get vac­ci­nated be­cause of re­li­gious be­liefs.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By Claire Os­born cos­born@states­man.com

A for­mer Le­an­der fire­fighter who re­fused to get a vac­ci­na­tion be­cause of his re­li­gious be­liefs has sued the city for fir­ing him.

The ter­mi­na­tion came in March 2016, af­ter fire­fighter Brett Horvath re­fused to get the vac­ci­na­tion or wear a sur­gi­cal mask for his en­tire 24-hour shift or trans­fer to a “less de­sir­able” po­si­tion, said his lawyer, Matt Ba­chop. He said Horvath re­fused in Fe­bru­ary 2016 to get the shot for diph­the­ria, per­tus­sis and tetanus be­cause it was against his Chris­tian be­liefs.

The Le­an­der Fire Depart­ment had pre­vi­ously ex­empted Horvath from vac­ci­na­tions be­cause of his re­li­gious be­liefs against pro­phy­lac­tic vac­ci­na­tions, Ba­chop said Tues­day. Le­an­der Fire Chief Bill Gard­ner dropped the ex­emp­tion af­ter Fe­bru­ary 2016.

“Gard­ner said it was a pub­lic health/pub­lic safety is­sue,” Ba­chop said, not­ing that as a Le­an­der fire­fighter Horvath did re­spond to emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vice calls.

Gard­ner told the Amer­i­can-States­man he couldn’t com­ment about the law­suit Tues­day be­cause it was pend­ing lit­i­ga­tion.

Joanna Sali­nas, the at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing the city of Le­an­der, said, “The city worked dili­gently with Mr. Horvath to de­velop al­ter­na­tives that would ac­com­mo­date his re­li­gious be­liefs and still ful­fill its obli­ga­tion to pro­tect the health and safety of city per­son­nel and mem­bers of the pub­lic

that are served by the city of Le­an­der Fire Depart­ment.”

“Mr. Horvath re­jected the city’s ef­forts,” Sali­nas said.

A spokes­woman for the Texas Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Com­mis­sion, Chris­tine Mann, said she wasn’t aware of any state re­quire­ments for vac­ci­na­tion of first re­spon­ders. “How­ever, many EMS providers and first re­spon­der or­ga­ni­za­tions may re­quire first re­spon­ders to be vac­ci­nated ac­cord­ing to their ex­po­sure con­trol plans,” she said.

Pro­phy­lac­tic vac­ci­na­tions pro­tect peo­ple from get­ting diseases by in­ject­ing them with a weak­ened or di­luted form of the dis­ease to en­cour­age their bod­ies to form an­ti­bod­ies.

Horvath didn’t want to wear the mask while he wasn’t out on med­i­cal calls dur­ing his shift be­cause he saw no med­i­cal rea­son for it, Ba­chop said.

Gard­ner re­fused to ne­go­ti­ate and fired Horvath on March 29, 2016, ac­cord­ing to the law­suit, which al­leges Horvath was dis­crim­i­nated against for his re­li­gious be­liefs. Horvath wants his job back plus back pay, Ba­chop said.

Ge­orge­town Fire Chief John Sul­li­van said Tues­day that his fire­fight­ers are al­lowed to sign a form de­clin­ing vac­ci­na­tions for “con­sci­en­tious” ob­jec­tions in­clud­ing re­li­gious or med­i­cal rea­sons. “Some­times we’ve seen it where they de­cline flu im­mu­niza­tions, but I haven’t had any­one de­cline the tetanus, diph­the­ria and per­tus­sis vac­cine,” he said.

Ba­chop — who as a gen­eral coun­sel for the Texas State As­so­ci­a­tion of Fire Fight­ers has han­dled var­i­ous em­ploy­ment cases for fire­fight­ers — said he has never seen an­other case of a fire­fighter be­ing fired af­ter re­fus­ing to get a vacci- na­tion.

Diph­the­ria and per­tus­sis, also known as whoop­ing cough, are bac­te­rial in­fec­tions that can be spread through the air. Tetanus is a bac­te­rial dis­ease that often en­ters the body through cuts and isn’t com­mu­ni­ca­ble. Diph­the­ria is “very rare” but per­tus­sis is more com­mon, said John Teel, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Wil­liamson County and Cities Health Dis­trict.

Teel said he thought it would be “ir­re­spon­si­ble” to al­low a fire­fighter who re­sponds to emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vice calls not to be vac­ci­nated. “I would not want a first re­spon­der ca­pa­ble of be­ing in­fected by a dis­ease to give it to me while they were try­ing to get help for me,” he said.

Horvath had worked as a Le­an­der fire­fighter for al­most four years, Ba­chop said. He said he didn’t know why Horvath’s re­li­gious be­liefs for­bid him to get pro­phy­lac­tic vac­ci­na­tions.

CITY OF LE­AN­DER

John Teel of the Wil­liamson County and Cities Health Dis­trict said he thought it would be “ir­re­spon­si­ble” to al­low a fire­fighter who re­sponds to med­i­cal ser­vice calls not to be vac­ci­nated.

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