A federal judge on Monday refused to prevent NorthShore University HealthSystem from terminating employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Fourteen NorthShore workers who objected to the shots on religious grounds had sued, trying to prevent the hospital system from carrying out its mandatory vaccination policy. The employees said they were willing to wear masks and be tested weekly for COVID instead, but their exemption requests were denied.

In early November, U.S. District Court Judge John Kness did issue a temporary restraining order, briefly stopping NorthShore from letting the workers go.

However, in a written ruling issued on Monday, Kness refused to turn the temporary order into what’s called a preliminary injunction. Such an injunction would have kept the employees on the job while the overall merits of their lawsuit went to trial, a process which could take months or even years.

The judge said that while the 14 employees have “demonstrated some likelihood of success on the merits of their case,” which alleges violation of federal civil rights statutes, the workers failed to show they would suffer “irreparable harm” if they lost their jobs.

“Irreparable harm” is one of the standards required for issuing a preliminary injunction.

Kness said the law does allow for monetary damages, which would be the legal remedy in this case should the workers win their lawsuit.

However, he said, blocking their termination is not legally appropriate.

The judge also denied the workers request that the case be turned into a class action lawsuit, also covering any other NorthShore employees who may face termination over COVID vaccine refusal.

He did, however, allow the 14 plaintiffs to remain anonymous, listed only as Jane Doe 1-14 in the pleadings.

The workers are represented by a conservative organization called Liberty Counsel. The group’s founder and chair, Matt Staver, issued a statement saying “NorthShore University HealthSystem is unlawfully denying religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate.” Staver said the litigation will continue.

NorthShore also issued a statement, which said in part “We are pleased with the court’s decision and remain committed to doing everything in our power to keep our team members, patients and communities healthy and safe.”

NorthShore has about 17,000 employees. The judge’s written ruling said more than 500 had requested exemptions for religious reasons.

It’s unclear what all of those stated religious reasons were, nor how many of those workers have since been vaccinated. The 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit all say they objected to COVID vaccines because of a link to an aborted fetal cell line, but their exemption requests were denied. The workers said they were willing to be tested for COVID weekly instead of getting the shots.

Fetal tissue is not used in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, nor is there any such tissue in the vaccines.

According to the Associated Press, fetal cell lines which originated in the 1970s were used to test the effectiveness of the vaccines. The AP says cell lines are a key to medical research, and are “cloned copies of cells from the same source that had been adapted to grow continuously in labs.”

Kness acknowledged the emotional, political, religious and medical issues raised by the fight against COVID-19.

“Efforts to ameliorate the pandemic have generated fresh fissures along familiar fault lines,” the judge wrote.

He noted the “collisions between the interests of public health, personal liberty and public policy.”

“This case,” the judge added, “represents a tangible example of those colliding interests.”

But Kness, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, said the “court’s sole duty,” at this stage, was to consider whether the plaintiffs had met all of the standards for a preliminary injunction.

“The court,” he said, “finds they have not.”

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