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, said Bachop.
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 vaccination.
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, said Bachop. He said he didn’t know why Horvath’s religious beliefs forbid him to get prophylactic vaccinations.
About the vaccine
The DTaP vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis is typically given in five doses to children under age 7.
Tdap is a different vaccine for those same diseases, typically given once at age 11-12, or to anyone older who hasn’t received the shot. This vaccination “is especially important for health care professionals and anyone having close contact with a baby younger than 12 months,” as infants can suffer serious and lifelong complications if they contract pertussis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.