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Employer’s COVID-19 Vaccination Policy Did Not Violate Health Care Right of Conscience Act

In August of 2021, Advocate Christ Medical Center (“Advocate”) adopted a policy requiring all employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, unless the employee had an approved religious exemption. The plaintiff in this case, who was employed as a nurse by Advocate, submitted a request for religious exemption, which Advocate denied on the grounds that the request was “based on misinformation.” The employee filed an appeal, which Advocate also denied on the grounds that the request was “missing sincere religious belief.” Advocate fired the employee shortly thereafter, and the employee then filed a claim under the Health Care Right of Conscience Act, alleging that she was terminated in violation of the Act because she refused to receive health care services in violation of her religious beliefs.

After the lawsuit was filed, Advocate filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was initially denied by the circuit court. However, after the appellate decision in Krewionek v. McKnight was issued in November 2022, Advocate filed a motion for reconsideration. In Krewionek, the appellate court held that an amendment to the Act addressing employer COVID-19 mitigation measures essentially bars suits by employees from challenging those measures.  The amended language, which applies to all actions commenced or pending on or after its effective date, provides, in pertinent part:

“It is not a violation of this Act for any … employer, to take any measures or impose any requirements, including, but not limited to, any measures or requirements that involve provision of services by a physician or health care personnel, intended to prevent contraction or transmission of COVID-19… It is not a violation of this Act to enforce such measures or requirements.”

Advocate contended that the employee’s lawsuit should be dismissed based on the amendment, and the circuit court agreed.

On appeal, the employee argued that Advocate’s motion should have been denied because whether a policy is “intended to stop the spread of COVID-19” is a factual question that should not be decided on a motion to dismiss.  This argument was nearly identical to the arguments made by the plaintiffs in Krewionek and was rejected by the appellate court. Thus, the court upheld the dismissal of the employee’s claim.

This case is important because it reaffirms that employers have broad authority under the Health Care Right of Conscience Act to implement mitigation measures intended to prevent the contraction or transmission of COVID-19.

Please contact Jason Manning, Frazier Satterly, Kevin McKeown, or any attorney in our Labor/Personnel Practice Group with questions related to this  case.

Source: Lenz v. Advocate Health and Hospitals Corp., 2023 IL App (1st) 230740 (October 12, 2023)