'A Win for Religious Freedom': OK Judge Blocks Healthcare Provider from Firing Workers Seeking Religious Exemption
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A judge granted the state of Oklahoma a temporary restraining order Friday stopping Ascension Healthcare from firing workers who had been denied religious exemptions from the company's employee vaccination mandate.
Tulsa County Presiding District Judge William LaFortune issued the order late Friday at the request of Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor, according to the Tulsa World.
"This evening, the Tulsa District Court granted the State's Application for Temporary Restraining Order in our case to keep Ascension Healthcare from carrying out its plan to fire employees who were unfairly denied religious exemptions from their COVID-19 vaccination mandate," O'Connor said in a statement. "This is a win for religious freedom and our office will continue to fight against unlawful religious discrimination."
"Healthcare heroes who sought a religious exemption on this and other sincerely held religious belief grounds have been flatly rejected by Ascension," O'Connor continued. "In so doing, Ascension committed religious discrimination against Oklahoma healthcare heroes who oppose abortion."
According to the Tulsa World, Judge LaFortune issued the order after the attorney general filed a lawsuit earlier Friday seeking to prevent Ascension's St. John Medical Center from suspending or firing employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and whose religious exemption has been denied.
The attorney general asked for the restraining order so his Office of Civil Rights Enforcement can complete its investigation or until the state and Ascension have reached an agreement, according to the lawsuit.
The judge scheduled a Dec. 1 hearing date for the state's emergency request.
Meanwhile, Ascension's attorneys moved the case to federal court, the World reported.
Several of St. John's employees protested outside of the hospital on Friday.
"I applied for a religious exemption, I was denied. I appealed the religious exemption denial and was denied a second time," Lisa Johnson, a nurse at St. John for 13 years told KTUL-TV. "We were pretty much told that if we were not compliant by the end of our work shift today we would be suspended."
According to its website, Ascension is a faith-based healthcare organization headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, and operates more than 2,600 sites of care – including 142 hospitals and more than 40 senior living facilities – in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
It is one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the U.S.
Ascension had placed a Nov. 12 deadline for all of its employees, vendors, and volunteers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza.
In a statement released to media outlets, the healthcare system said: "As a leading healthcare provider, we continue to put the safety of our associates and those we are privileged to serve at the forefront of everything we do. This is why we have required our associates to receive both the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine."
"We want patients to be assured and comforted with the knowledge that our doctors and nurses, other clinicians and associates, working in one of our hospitals or other sites of care, will either be vaccinated against both COVID-19 and influenza, or in the instances of exemptions or accommodations, be complying with additional infection prevention protocols," the statement continued.
"Patients and their loved ones should have that peace of mind as they entrust us with their care," the statement concluded.
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