Texas Firefighter Sues Over Mandatory Vaccination

A Texas firefighter who was fired last year for refusing to get a required vaccination is suing for religious discrimination. Brett Horvath was terminated from the Leander Fire Department in March 2016 after he refused to get vaccinated for diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus (DPT). He had been on the department for almost four years when he was fired.

Horvath’s refusal to get the vaccination was based on his religious beliefs. According to the complaint, Leander accommodated Horvath’s religious preferences until February 2016 at which point the department told him he needed to get the vaccination or “propose a substitute accommodation in order to retain his position.” Despite some preliminary discussions about an accommodation involving the wearing of a surgical mask, an agreement was not reached and Horvath was terminated.

The complaint claims that the city took the position that Horvath would have to wear the surgical mask for the duration of his 24-hour work shift, and refused to consider less restrictive alternatives.

The American Statesman quoted Leander’s attorney, Joanna Salinas, as saying: “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.”

The suit was filed on March 2, 2017 in Williamson County District Court, alleging violations of Horvath’s 1st and 14th Amendment rights as well as Violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Horvath is seeking reinstatement with backpay, plus interest, costs and attorneys fees.

A big thank you to Horvath’s attorney, Matt Bachop, for providing a copy of the complaint: Horvath v Leander

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • mr618

    He DOES have a right to forego vaccinations, but he does NOT have a right to a particular job… especially in Texas, bastion of “right to work” dogma. And with all the other anti-vaxxer loons running around, the last thing people need is a FF with whooping cough hacking and gagging all over them. Thanks, Goober, but no thanks. Maybe YOUR idea of “public safety” doesn’t include preventing the transmission of preventable disease, but for the rest of us, it does.

  • James Cleveland

    mr618, I will be curious how the case rattles out. You are right, he doesn’t need to be pathogen vector, but at the same time wearing a mask for 24 hour shift is not reasonable. If the rest of the crew is vaccinated (or chose not to), he is not a threat to them. In that case why not just have him wear a mask on calls. Not sure where it will go but it will be interesting to watch.

    • mr618

      He IS a risk to the general public, though. And wearing a mask is not unreasonable… folks in hospitals do it all the time. He could easily make the argument that if he’s not required to wear a mask in the station, why is he required to wear one on calls, since the risk of infecting others would be equal (co-workers or general public).

      More to the point, HIS right to refuse to be vaccinated does NOT outweigh OUR right to health. Same as with kids: yes, you have a right to refuse to vaccinate your kids, you do NOT have the right for your kids to spread measles to mine.

      • James Cleveland

        I don’t disagree and I fully support vaccinations, I just wonder where the court will find the balance between the rights of the employer and the rights of the employee.

  • firemedic5100

    Pertussis is known to occur in three to five
    year cycles. The last peak year in Texas was 2013 with 3,985 cases, the highest
    annual case count since 1959. There were 1,504 cases in 2015, marking the
    beginning of the valley of the three to five year cycle. Out of 25 million population, that is a low incident. I also question why he was exempted for 3 years, and now all of the sudden, he is not. Considering there was only 44 cases in the entire county (of roughly 500,000) last year The numbers don’t add up.

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