Religious discrimination lawsuit claims mandatory flu shot caused woman 'severe emotional distress'

The Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit charging that a Wisconsin nursing home’s insistence that all employees get annual flu vaccinations amounted to religious discrimination and a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, CNBC reports.

The lawsuit, filed March 6, claims that nursing assistant Barnell Williams was told in the fall of 2016 that she would lose her job at the county-owned Lasata Care Center if she did not get vaccinated. This policy conflicted with her “sincerely held religious belief that Bible-based scriptures prohibited flu shots,” according to a DOJ statement.

Flu shots are routinely given in workplaces, and sometimes required for those delivering health care. (Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images)
Flu shots are routinely given in workplaces, and sometimes required for those delivering health care. (Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images)

The nursing home, in Ozaukee County, did provide an exemption for employees citing religious issues, saying that could wear protective masks in lieu of getting a flu shot. Williams, however, did not meet the criteria because, according to the legal filing, she could not provide a letter from a clergy member testifying to her faith as “she had no affiliation with any church or organized religion.”

When Williams explained her circumstances and shared that “her interpretation of the Bible prohibited her from putting certain foreign substances, including vaccinations, in her body because it was a ‘Holy Temple,'” campus administrator Ralph Luedtke allegedly told her that she should “consider this your last day.”

A county-owned nursing home reportedly said employees who didn’t receive the flu shot would be terminated. (Photo: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images)
A county-owned nursing home reportedly said employees who didn’t receive the flu shot would be terminated. (Photo: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images)

Williams claims that her requests to submit alternatives to the clergy letter, such as testimony from family members, were denied. Fearful of losing her job, she got the flu shot but was “emotionally distraught” by the situation.

“Williams suffered severe emotional distress from receiving the flu shot in violation of her religious beliefs, including withdrawing from work and her personal life, suffering from sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of ‘going to hell’ because she had disobeyed the Bible by receiving the shot,” the lawsuit charges. “These deep emotional problems stemming from having to take the flu shot have plagued Williams to the present.”

The DOJ lawsuit, which stems from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint Williams filed in October 2016, argues that defendant Ozaukee County was “unjustified” in requiring her to provide a letter from a clergy member as proof of her beliefs. It noted that the nursing home has since changed its policy requiring letters for religious exemptions.

“When employees’ religious principles conflict with work rules, they should not have to choose between practicing their religion and keeping their jobs if a reasonable accommodation can be made without undue hardship to the employer,” acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore said in a statement to CNBC.

The lawsuit is seeking damages and “additional relief” for Williams to “fully compensate her for pain and suffering caused by the defendant’s discriminatory conduct.”

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