A conservative Christian organization says it has settled class action lawsuit against Evanston-based NorthShore University HealthSystem on behalf of more than 500 current and former hospital employees who had objected to the system’s mandatory COVID vaccination policy on religious grounds.
About half of those employees either quit or were let go. The rest took the shots.
Florida-based Liberty Counsel released a copy of the $10.3 million settlement, which was filed on Friday morning in federal court in Chicago.
Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Matt Staver told Evanston Now that this “is a big wakeup call for employers,” that there can be “no blanket dismissals” of everyone who requested a religious exemption from the COVID vaccinations.
In a statement, Liberty Counsel said this was a first-of-its-kind class action settlement in the nation for health care workers related to COVID shot mandates.
Liberty Counsel said the hospital workers “were unlawfully discriminated against and denied religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate.”
As part of the agreement, Liberty Counsel says that NorthShore will change its policy to allow unvaccinated employees to work if they receive approved religious exemptions, which must be considered on a case by case basis rather than denied to everyone.
In addition, those who were let go because they refused to get COVID shots on religious grounds are eligible for reinstatement.
It’s unclear whether unvaccinated hospital employees will have to be tested for COVID-19 or not. Staver said it may depend on how such a policy is implemented.
For example, one potential option might be to temporarily assign unvaccinated workers to positions that require less interpersonal contact, but he noted it’s all just speculation now until it’s known what NorthShore will do.
Liberty Counsel estimates that employees who quit or were fired will receive approximately $25,000 each. The original 13 plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit will get around $20,000 more.
Workers who had filed religious exemption requests, but then decided to get the shots, will receive around $3,000 each.
The 13 named plaintiffs, and presumably most of the others who objected to the shots on religious grounds, claimed that the COVID vaccinations were “associated with aborted fetal tissue,” according to Liberty Counsel.
That claim is technically accurate, but still controversial. National Geographic magazine explains that while it is true that such cells have been used in the testing, development and production of the vaccines, the cells are actually “grown in a laboratory and were derived from a few elective abortions more than three decades ago.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had said that under the circumstances of the COVID pandemic, use of the vaccines is justified.
The lawsuit settlement still has to be approved by a federal judge overseeing the case.
Update 12:55 p.m.: Evanston Now asked NorthShore for a response to the settlement report and received the following statement.
“We continue to support system-wide, evidence-based vaccination requirements for everyone who works at NorthShore – Edward/Elmhurst Health and thank our team members for helping keep our communities safe.
“The settlement reflects implementation of a new system-wide vaccine policy which will include accommodation for team members with approved exemptions, including former employees who are rehired.”