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First Circuit Court of Appeals rules that religious healing is not medical care under FMLA

On January 27, 2011, the First Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an employee may not take unpaid leave from work to care for a family member so that he can undergo religious healing rituals. A former employee of the Lahey Clinic, Marial Lucia Tayag, brought the case. The Lahey Clinic fired Mrs. Tayag because she took leave from work to care for her chronically ill husband while they went on a healing pilgrimage to a Catholic church in the Philippines. Mrs. Tayag’s husband suffers from serious medical conditions, including gout, chronic liver and heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and kidney problems that led to a transplant in 2000. While in the Philippines they prayed and met with priests and other pilgrims.

Mrs. Tayag argued that the Lahey Clinic violated her rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because she was entitled to take leave to care for her husband while they were on their healing pilgrimage. The First Circuit (which is the federal appellate court for Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico) rejected Mrs. Tayag’s argument. It held that the FMLA did not protect Mrs. Tayag because her husband did not receive medical care from a “health care provider,” as that term is defined in the FMLA, during their healing pilgrimage. The court noted that federal regulations permit Christian Scientists to take FMLA leave for religious healing but did not extend that regulation to apply to Catholics.

The FMLA and the regulations that accompany it are sometimes difficult to navigate. If you are not sure whether your employer has violated your rights under the FMLA, you should contact an experienced employment lawyer to find out.