Oklahoma brings religious bias suit over Catholic hospitals' COVID vaccine mandate

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REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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Nov 12 (Reuters) - Oklahoma sued Ascension Healthcare on Friday because the Roman Catholic hospital operator's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees allegedly violated the state's laws against religious discrimination, in what appeared to be the first case of its kind.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O'Connor, a Republican, accused the organization of discrimination by denying requests for religious exemptions from the healthcare system's COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

According to the lawsuit, Mitchell Duininck, a physician in Tulsa, sought a religious exemption because taking a vaccine that was developed with ties to aborted fetal cells would violate his sincerely held religious beliefs.

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After submitting a seven-page letter explaining his request, he received a denial without explanation in a process the lawsuit described as a "sham."

The attorney general asked the court to prevent the operator from terminating employees and to stop summarily rejecting religious exemptions.

O'Connor's office said it was not aware of any other state attorney general suing a private employer over a vaccine mandate.

COVID-19 vaccine requirements have become a divisive issue in the United States. Republican officials have gone to court to fight the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden over his efforts to increase vaccination rates through government-imposed requirements. read more

Many private healthcare employers have issued their own vaccine requirements, which have generally been upheld in court when challenged by workers.

Ascension said in a statement that it requires the vaccine for COVID-19 to ensure the safety of its staff and its patients.

The operator announced the mandate in August and said employees must get vaccinated for COVID-19 or get an approved exemption for medical or religious reasons or face termination on Nov. 12.

O’Connor said in a statement that by flatly denying exemptions "Ascension committed religious discrimination against Oklahoma healthcare heroes who oppose abortion.”

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Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; editing by Jonathan Oatis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Award-winning reporter covering U.S. courts and law from the COVID-19 pandemic to high-profile criminal trials and Wall Street's biggest failures with more than two decades of experience in international financial news in Asia and Europe.