Riverside Healthcare’s blanket denial of religious exemptions violates Illinois law
Both Illinois law and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s executive order protect healthcare professionals’ right to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine or participation in any other healthcare services. Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee is violating those laws with their vaccine mandate. Employees are required to get the vaccine or lose their jobs and all religious or conscience exemption requests are being denied.
The Liberty Justice Center is representing six nurses in Panozzo v. Riverside Healthcare who are being forced by their employer to choose between their sincere religious beliefs and their livelihoods. Amy Memenga, a nurse and employee of Riverside for over 25 years was fired in September when her religious exemption was denied. Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner who has been serving patients for over 24 years, and four other nurses at Riverside have been told they will be terminated on October 31 for their conscientious refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I have dedicated my life to living out my faith by serving my patients,” said Neelie Panozzo, a nurse practitioner. “I believe I am called to love and serve my patients, especially those who are frail and vulnerable. I am also following my faith’s teachings when I say I cannot accept this vaccine. I am ashamed that Riverside will not respect my sincere beliefs and instead insists on firing all of its employees who sought conscience protections.”
In this lawsuit, Liberty Justice Center attorneys are asking the court to safeguard two rights established by Illinois Health Care Rights of Conscience Act that are being threatened by Riverside Healthcare’s blanket denial of exemptions:
- The right to an individualized assessment for an exemption based on sincere religious beliefs
- The right to fair standards for determining an employee’s sincere beliefs.
“These nurses worked throughout the pandemic, putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line. They were celebrated as ‘essential workers’ and ‘heroes’ for their courage – and rightly so. And now, 20 months into the pandemic, Riverside Healthcare is showing them the door unless they violate their religious beliefs and their conscience,” said Daniel Suhr, managing attorney at the Liberty Justice Center. “This is a ruthless overreach aimed at coercing front line workers to do something they sincerely believe is wrong. 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.”
Update on Oct. 25, 2021: On Oct 25, 2021, Riverside Healthcare nurses won an important victory after a Kankakee County judge said their hospital system cannot fire them yet for refusing to get the COVID vaccine. The nurses were facing termination on Oct. 31 until the action by Judge Nancy Nicholson.
The Temporary Restraining Order will be in place until Nov 19 when the judge will hold a hearing on the Motion for Preliminary Injunction to offer ongoing protection.
Update on Oct. 28, 2021: Now, on the heels of an important victory on Oct. 28, 2021, the nurses’ attorneys filed an amended complaint to protect an additional 56 Riverside employees from being fired. These workers face termination on Oct. 31.