Fourteen Illinois health care workers who had their request for religious exemptions from a COVID-19 vaccine mandate rejected at least in part because of their objection to the shots’ use of abortion-derived cell lines have filed a federal class-action lawsuit against NorthShore University HealthSystem, which employs 17,000 people in six hospitals and 140 other Illinois locations.
Liberty Counsel, a public-interest law firm, filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on behalf of Jane Does 1-14 against NorthShore University HealthSystem, based in Evanston, Ill. Each of the plaintiffs filed for religious exemptions that were denied, then eventually replaced with ones that would put them into fully remote jobs. Most of the plaintiffs are nurses or other patient-facing staff. Eight of them recovered from COVID-19 and have protective antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the lawsuit said. Attorneys are seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to protect the workers from being fired or forced from their jobs for not taking a COVID shot.
“NorthShore University HealthSystem cannot ignore state and federal law and terminate employees whose sincere religious beliefs prohibit them from receiving these COVID shots,” said Liberty Counsel chairman Matthew D. Staver. “These health care workers need immediate relief from the court from these unlawful actions.”
NorthShore mandated all of its 17,000 employees be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 31. Jim Anthony, NorthShore’s senior director of public relations, said the health provider “created a thorough and consistent process to allow all eligible team members to request appropriate exemptions. We considered each request based on multiple criteria, including the totality of information submitted, safety considerations and current conditions. As such, we’ve had to and will continue to evolve our approach and response in fighting this pandemic while prioritizing employee and patient safety first and foremost.”
Anthony said NorthShore respects the beliefs of all of its employees. “We value their committed service and respect their beliefs,” Anthony said in a statement. “However, COVID-19 has presented unique challenges that continue to threaten our communities and therefore we must prioritize the safety of our patients and team members in support of our broader mission. As healthcare workers, we’re entrusted to provide the safest, most effective patient care possible.”
The lawsuit said some of the plaintiffs have endured harassment from their supervisors for taking a stand against the vaccine mandate. Some were told their jobs are already in the process of being filled. Jane Doe 14, an applications analyst, faced “intimidation and pressure tactics” that caused her “toxic stress resulting in the exacerbation of previously stabilized health conditions,” the complaint said. Jane Doe 9, a nurse in an infant special-care unit, “is the victim of daily harassment from her supervisors, who demean and belittle her for her beliefs.”
Jane Doe 5, a clinical nurse resident in an emergency department, “has been harassed by her manager on multiple occasions for not obtaining a vaccine, even while waiting for a response to her appeal,” the suit said. Jane Doe 3, an acute-care staff nurse who fears she could become homeless if she loses her job, mentioned her religious-exemption appeal to her supervisor, but was told, “It doesn’t matter, we are not approving anyone,” according to the suit.
The suit contends NorthShore’s vaccine mandate violates the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and federal code under the emergency-use authorization (EUA) statute that states individuals must “be given the option to accept or refuse” the vaccines. The emergency-use statute “prohibits NorthShore (or any other entity) from making the COVID-19 vaccines mandatory,” the suit states.
NorthShore presented the plaintiffs with a “Hobson’s choice” with no real options: either deny their sincerely held religious beliefs and be injected with a substance tied to abortions, or lose their jobs, the complaint said.
“Initially, NorthShore denied all or virtually all exemption requests it received, regardless of merit,” the suit said. “More recently, after being confronted with the illegality of its conduct, NorthShore switched tactics from denying all of the plaintiffs’ religious exemption request to informing them that those same requests will now be ‘approved’ in theory and name only…” NorthShore then claimed it would cause “undue hardship” to allow the plaintiffs to continue in their current positions and indicated it would instead offer “fully remote work,” the suit said.
“It is clear from NorthShore’s denials that NorthShore never intended to grant any of these exemption requests to begin with, and that its entire exemption process was a sham,” the lawsuit said. “Indeed, NorthShore’s express exclusion of abortion-related religious beliefs from consideration, and NorthShore’s imposition of the requirement for employees to provide vaccination records for their entire adult lives (both of which are unlawful) rendered most, if not all, of those appeals futile.”
NorthShore announced the COVID vaccine mandate on Aug. 16 for its employees, contractors and volunteers. The health care group said at the time that the vaccine mandate “is a critical and essential defense against this pandemic.” An Oct. 31 deadline was set for employees to be “fully vaccinated” against COVID-19. NorthShore does not require its patients or visitors to be vaccinated, the suit said. Employees are allowed to claim medical exemptions, including for pregnancy.
Plaintiffs in the case were required to submit a written form to request religious exemption by Sept. 30. The form asked for a description of each employee’s religious belief that guides their decision to refuse the vaccines. After granting some religious exemptions, “NorthShore then unilaterally re-reviewed the requests and denied all or virtually all of them in mid-September,” the suit alleged. “NorthShore ultimately and uniformly denied all exemptions for no reason at all, or for supposed lack of ‘evidence-based criteria,’ without identifying any such evidence, either in advance or at the time of the denials.”
Employees who appealed the denial of their religious exemptions were asked to supply their vaccination history from age 18 onward. The appeal form had only three lines for employees to fill in with their appeal arguments. One employee who was denied exemption and privately asked for an explanation was told if an employee had previously accepted a vaccine, “satisfactory explanation of how this vaccine impacts their religious belief or practice is necessary,” the complaint contended.
NorthShore changed its exemption form to include a warning “that all religious objections based on ‘aborted fetal cell lines, stem cells, tissue or derivative materials’ would ‘result in denials,’ ” the suit read.
According to numerous pro-life organizations, including the Charlotte Lozier Institute and Children of God for Life, all three of the COVID vaccines under emergency-use authorization in the United States used abortion-derived fetal cell lines at some point in development, testing or production. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine used the PER.C6 cell line, which came from a retina of a baby aborted in 1985, the suit said. The shots from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech used fetal cell lines for “proof of concept” testing, the suit said. The HEK-293 cell line derived from a baby girl aborted in 1972 was used by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech in testing, according to Children of God for Life.
“Because all three of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines are developed and produced from, tested with, researched on, or otherwise connected with the aborted fetal cell lines HEK-293 and PER.C6, plaintiffs’ sincerely held religious beliefs compel them to abstain from obtaining or injecting any of these products into their body, regardless of the perceived benefit or rationale,” the complaint said.
NorthShore’s Anthony urged employees not to forego the shots. “We implore our colleagues who remain vaccine hesitant to at least reconsider for the benefit for everyone’s health and safety; and because they’re part of an extraordinary and talented team,” he said. “We know these are unprecedented times that continue to evolve in a pandemic that has already cost millions of lives. But we believe that the vaccines have proven to be safe and effective in the fight against COVID-19.”
Growing list of litigation over mandates
The suit against NorthShore joins a quickly growing list of state and federal litigation over coercive COVID-19 vaccine policies. A federal lawsuit brought by We the Patriots USA on behalf of New York health care workers against Gov. Kathy Hochul’s vaccine mandate will be back in appeals court this week for a hearing. A vaccine-mandate suit brought by the Thomas More Society against the University of Colorado School of Medicine will also be in federal court for a hearing. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the emergency petition of 2,009 Maine health care workers seeking an injunction against Gov. Janet T. Mills over her administration’s vaccine mandate.
A group of nurses in Kankakee County, Ill., on Monday won a temporary restraining order against Riverside Healthcare that prohibits the health provider from firing staff who refuse to take the COVID vaccine. Kankakee County Circuit Court Associate Judge Nancy Nicholson said the restraining order will be in effect until a Nov. 19 hearing to consider a preliminary injunction in the case. The nurses filed suit earlier this month after Riverside announced a blanket rejection of all exemption requests.
“Today’s ruling marks an important step toward victory for these nurses — and it sends a signal to all Americans about the importance of fighting for your rights,” said Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center, which represents the nurses. “Employers and government officials should take note that forcing people to violate their conscience not only is wrong, it’s illegal. No one should be forced to choose between keeping their job and sacrificing their beliefs.”
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