A Christian ministry says it has settled a class action lawsuit against an Illinois hospital system on behalf of more than 500 current and former health care employees who opposed the system's COVID-19 vaccine mandate on religious grounds.
Liberty Counsel on Friday announced it had reached a $10.3 million settlement with the Chicago-based NorthShore University HealthSystem after the hospital system fired hundreds of workers who claimed religious liberty exemptions and refused to comply with its vaccination policies.
“This classwide settlement providing compensation and the opportunity to return to work is the first of its kind in the nation involving COVID shot mandates. This settlement should be a wake-up call to every employer that did not accommodate or exempt employees who opposed the COVID shots for religious reasons," said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
The settlement was filed in the federal Northern District Court of Illinois and must be approved by the court.
In a statement, the Christian group said this is a "historic, first-of-its-kind class action settlement" involving a dispute over religious exemption requests for COVID-19 shots.
Liberty Counsel said the health care workers "were unlawfully discriminated against and denied religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate."
NorthShore is an integrated health care delivery system encompassing six hospitals in the Chicago metropolitan area and employing more than 10,000 people.
According to court documents, NorthShore estimated that approximately 523 employees requested and were denied religious exemption and/or accommodation to its vaccination policy between July 1, 2021, and January 1, 2022. Of those employees, about 204 took the vaccine while 269 were fired or resigned rather than comply with the vaccine mandate.
"As a result of the settlement, NorthShore will pay $10,337,500 to compensate these healthcare employees who were victims of religious discrimination, and who were punished for their religious beliefs against taking an injection associated with aborted fetal cells," Liberty Counsel said.
The group estimated that employees who were terminated or resigned because their religious exemption claim was rejected will receive approximately $25,000 each. Employees who accepted the COVID-19 shot to keep their jobs will receive about $3,000 each.
NorthShore has also agreed to change its "no religious accommodations policy," Liberty Counsel added, calling the previous policy "unlawful."
Additionally, employees who were fired will be eligible for rehire to their previous positions if they wish, Liberty Counsel said.
“Let this case be a warning to employers that violated Title VII. It is especially significant and gratifying that this first classwide COVID settlement protects health care workers. Health care workers are heroes who daily give their lives to protect and treat their patients. They are needed now more than ever," Staver said.
Responding, NorthShore said, "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," the hospital system told Evanston Now.