(The Center Square) – Six nurses employed by Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee who filed a lawsuit against the hospital over their right to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine have been granted a temporary restraining order by the court.
Kankakee County Judge Nancy Nicholson granted the temporary restraining order until Nov. 19. She will then hold a hearing on a motion for a preliminary injunction requested by the nurses.
Neelie Panozzo, Amy Memenga, and four other nurses, whose names have not been released, were notified by Riverside Healthcare officials that they would be terminated by Oct. 31 if they do not get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The temporary restraining order prevents the hospital from taking action regarding the nurses until Nov. 19.
“While we disagree with the court’s decision and plan to contest the ruling, we will comply with the court’s requirement that we allow these employees to continue working as the legal process proceeds,” Riverside Healthcare said in a statement. “These and other unvaccinated team members are required to comply with stringent safety protocols, including wearing an N95 mask at all times and weekly testing.”
The nurses are represented by attorney Dan Suhr of The Liberty Justice Center, a national nonprofit law firm.
Suhr said that Riverside violated the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which protects physicians and other health care workers from being asked to compromise their beliefs in the course of practicing their profession.
“This order preserves the status quo while the court fully considers the case,” Suhr said. “In this instance, it means that Riverside can’t take any employee action, like firing or terminating these nurses.”
Suhr said that the decision is a favorable one for his clients, but he understands there is more work left to be done.
“The reality is that a TRO is a very fast procedure to grant relief in an exigent circumstance.” Suhr said. “This order will only last until the 19th of November.”
He said the nurses have “devout religious beliefs,” but the hospital system denied their request for an exemption from the vaccine mandate.
Suhr said that what Riverside is doing by refusing exemptions for the nurses is illegal.
“At Liberty Justice Center, our job is to fight against overreach and protect people’s rights,” Suhr said. “This is not only overreach, it is wrong and it is illegal.”
Suhr and it was a victory not only for his clients, but also for other workers who may be dealing with a similar issue.
“While Riverside has been especially egregious and especially public about, we are concerned that there might be other employers out there who are not taking seriously their legal obligation to respect the conscience rights of their employees,” he said.
Riverside Healthcare said it stood by its policy.
“We are unwavering in our belief that requiring our employees to be vaccinated or receive an approved religious/strongly held belief or medical exemption will allow us to provide the safest environment possible, and that the criteria we’ve been using to guide our decisions is fair, justifiable and clearly focused on protecting the health and safety of our patients and workforce,” the hospital system said in a statement. “We continue to be deeply grateful for every member of our team, the vast majority of whom have already received the vaccine or an approved exemption. We hope that those who haven’t will also take this important step before the deadline on Oct. 31.”