A federal court has temporarily blocked Evanston-based NorthShore University HealthSystem from terminating 14 employees who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The 14 workers, NorthShore nurses and support personnel, sued the hospital system, saying their rights to a vaccine exemption on religious grounds were unfairly denied.

Northshore was requiring all 17,000 employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 31.

On Friday afternoon, a U.S. District Court judge in Chicago granted a temporary restraining order requested by the workers, effective Nov. 1.

The employees are represented by a Virginia-based conservative Christian organization, Liberty Counsel.

Counsel founder Matt Staver said, “The health care facility’s plans to purge employees who have sincere religious beliefs against the COVID shots has been foiled. These health care workers are heroes.”

The workers in question claimed that COVID vaccines are linked to aborted fetal cells, and said they have “sincere religious objections” to taking such shots.

Fetal tissue is not used in the production of COVID shots, nor is there any such tissue in the vaccines themselves.

Rather, according to the Associated Press regarding the Pfizer vaccine, a fetal cell line which originated in the 1970s was used only to test the effectiveness of the vaccinations. AP stated that cell lines “are the key to medical research,” and “are cloned copies of cells from the same source that have been adapted to grow continuously in labs.”

NorthShore has said only a small fraction of its workers had requested exemptions, which were reviewed fairly and consistently, and were denied. The hospital system said COVID-19 presented “unique challenges” in keeping hospital patients, staff, and visitors safe.

Following the judge’s ruling, NorthShore spokesperson Jim Anthony issued a statement which said, “We respect the court’s decision in this matter and will abide by it, but are unable to offer further comment on pending litigation. As always, our highest priority is the health and safety of our patients, visitors, employees and their families.”

The judge’s order is temporary. Another hearing is scheduled on Nov. 16 to determine whether a longer-term restraining order should be issued that would extend job protection for the workers while the case goes to trial.

Liberty Counsel is also asking the court to give the lawsuit class action status, potentially opening it up to other employees.

Update 7:30 p.m.: Late Friday the U.S. Supreme Court refused to block a state requirement in Maine that health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus, notwithstanding their religious objections.

The ruling came in an emergency appeal application by the workers from a unanimous decision of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upholding the state’s requirement.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.