For the past 20 months, Americans have shown a special gratitude for this country’s healthcare workers. Despite knowing very little about this contagious virus, they have put themselves in harm’s way to take care of the sick and protect others. They truly deserve to be hailed as heroes.
But today, the gratitude seems to have waned for these frontline workers in medicine. The America they fought to save, to keep healthy, is turning its back on nurses, doctors and other essential workers who now face losing their jobs for declining to take a COVID vaccine. Even those who say their religious beliefs prevent them from receiving a vaccine are being told that the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, federal civil rights code, and state laws are meant to protect others, not protect them.
That’s exactly the message delivered by Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, Illinois, to their unvaccinated healthcare workers. They’re showing nurses and healthcare workers that their rights and their beliefs don’t matter. The message is clear: get the shot or get out.
Riverside informed the employees that they would be fired at the end of October for choosing not to receive the COVID vaccine on religious grounds. My public-interest law firm, the Liberty Justice Center, stepped in to represent Neelie Panozzo, a nurse and nurse practitioner for over 25 years. She is one of over fifty of her Riverside colleagues who were told to choose between their faith and their jobs.
Neelie considers the profession she has been practicing for decades, caring for the sick, to be a calling from God. “I have dedicated my life to living out my faith by serving my patients,” Neelie has said. “I believe I am called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable. I am also following my faith’s teachings when I say I cannot accept this vaccine.”
She adds, “I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs and instead insists on firing all of its employees who sought conscience protections.”
Thankfully, as a result of our emergency motion, a Kankakee County judge stepped in with a restraining order in the nick of time. Now the nurses and other healthcare providers are permitted to keep their jobs through at least Jan. 11, when the judge will hear a motion to extend the employees’ protection.
Thousands of healthcare workers around America have refused vaccination over concerns about the lack of long-term data on the three COVID vaccines, but in the case of Neelie and her co-workers the grounds are rooted in the religious liberties Americans have cherished from the time of our independence. And specific protection for these nurses’ act of faith is protected under state law in the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which guards the right to individualized assessment for an exemption based on sincere religious beliefs, as well as the right to fair standards in determining those sincere beliefs held by an employee.
The religious background of healthcare workers in Riverside and around the country who oppose the vaccine on religious grounds vary. They are not all Catholic or Christian. However, importantly, both Illinois state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect their right not to be discriminated against due to their personal, individual religious beliefs. In fact, the belief does not have to be connected to a formal religion. That is why in Illinois it is called the “right of conscience.”
That state law declares that “It is the public policy of the State of Illinois to respect and protect the right of conscience of all persons who refuse to obtain, receive or accept … health care services and medical care … and to prohibit all forms of discrimination, disqualification, coercion, disability or imposition of liability upon such persons … by reason of their refusing to act contrary to their conscience …”
The nurses and healthcare providers at Riverside do not want to put anyone in danger. They know COVID-19 better than anyone, and they are making a deeply personal, individual decision. Neelie and the workers appreciate the risk associated with the virus and understand public health guidance. They have been following protocols issued by the Centers for Disease Control since March 2020. They place a high value on continuing to protect themselves, their coworkers, and their patients, which is why they follow the guidance provided by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which outlines masking, staffing and other safety protocols for workers who are unable to get a COVID-19 shot due to religious or medical exemptions.
Since the Liberty Justice Center filed a lawsuit to protect these nurses, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker decided their right to choose should be stripped from them. The possibility of healthcare workers employing their freedom of choice based on sincerely held beliefs was simply unacceptable to the governor. He directed his supporters in the Illinois General Assembly to draft and pass an amendment to limit the religious freedom of all Illinoisians. And, in spite of 50,000 witness slips from citizens in only 48 hours opposing the amendment, it was adopted.
This change to Illinois state law may affect the Riverside workers’ rights alleged in their lawsuit. It is a ruthless overreach with the obvious aim of coercing America’s frontline workers to commit an act they sincerely believe to be wrong.
Their choice should be respected. Not only is that the right thing to do; it is Illinois law. Neelie and these other healthcare heroes are standing up for their rights just as courageously as they risked their lives, and their health, as they saved the lives of others and cared for the sick over so many years.
Jeffrey Schwab is a Senior Attorney at the Liberty Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that fights to protect Americans’ fundamental constitutional rights.