Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, Illinois announced in September that they were rejecting all requests from staff for religious exemptions to the hospital's COVID vaccine mandate. The hospital reasoned that they could not allow unvaccinated healthcare workers to care for patients. This has sparked a group of nurses to fight to uphold their religious rights against the COVID vaccine mandate.
"Based on our review of your declination request and our COVID Vaccination Program Policy, your request has been denied," the letter of denial to staff at Riverside Healthcare read, as per Faithwire. "Although your religious or strongly held belief may otherwise qualify for an exemption, Riverside has decided to deny your request because you are in a patient-facing position."
The hospital claimed that it took "all requests very seriously and respect[s] the time you invested to submit this." Following the rejection, six nurses have filed a lawsuit against Riverside Healthcare, seeking a permanent injunction to stop the hospital system from enforcing the COVID vaccine mandate. The Illinois nurses were represented by Liberty Justice Center, which called the vaccine requirement a "ruthless overreach."
Plaintiffs in this case are Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner with almost 25 years of experience, registered nurse Valerie Kietzman who has been with the company for four years, nurse Judy Busato who was with the company for seven months, Kathryn Hamblem who was a nurse practitioner at Riverside for four years, registered nurse Carmen Wymore who worked at the company for five years, and Amy Memenga, a nurse manager of 26 years who reported that she was fired in September.
"This is a ruthless overreach aimed at coercing front-line workers to do something they sincerely believe is wrong," Liberty Justice Center managing attorney Daniel Suhr declared. "These nurses know the virus better than anyone and are making a deeply personal, individual choice that should be respected. Not only is that the right thing to do, but it's Illinois law."
Panozzo, who claimed she has "dedicated my life to living out my faith by serving my patients" and has been "called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable" said that she was merely following her faith's teachings in declining the COVID vaccine mandate. She lamented, "I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs and instead insists on firing all of its employees who sought conscience protections."
The Illinois nurses also named Riverside Healthcare CEO Phil Kambic in the lawsuit. The company is Kankakee County's largest employer with over 30,000 healthcare workers. As of August, the company had a vaccination rate of 54%.
Meanwhile across Illinois, Governor J.B. Pritzer has delayed the deadline for for state employees of veterans' homes, prisons and other congregate facilities to get the COVID vaccines as his office continues to negotiate with labor unions that represent the state's workers, ABC 7 Eyewitness News reported.
Gov. Pritzker, a Democrat, set an October 4 deadline for state workers to get vaccinated against COVID back in August. On Friday, he announced that the deadline has been moved to November 30. Those who are affected by his COVID vaccine mandate are workers at the departments of Corrections, Veterans Affairs, Human Services and Juvenile Justice.
His office continues talks with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME) and Teamsters Local 700 to compromise on what the AFSCME called "rigid mandates."