Feds sue nursing home, alleging religious discrimination in forced flu shot

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Approved influenza vaccine uses microinjection delivery system
Approved influenza vaccine uses microinjection delivery system

The Justice Department is suing a Wisconsin nursing home, alleging that it discriminated against an employee by forcing her to get a flu shot.

Barnell Williams, who formerly worked as a nursing assistant, reportedly asked the Lasata Care Center for a religious exemption from receiving a flu shot. The nursing home — which is owned by Ozaukee County, Wisconsin — balked, according to the complaint, and asked that she produce a note from her clergy leader.

She said she could not, however, provide such a note, as she did not belong to a religious institution at the time. Williams submitted to the flu shot, despite her objections, for fear of being terminated.

The Justice Department says in its complaint that Lasata's requirement violated Title VII, a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination because of religion. “The policy on its face denied religious accommodations to employees, like Ms. Williams, who do not belong to churches with clergy leaders,” the complaint states.

“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, with the Civil Rights Division, said in a press release. “Employers should take care not to craft policies that disfavor individuals because of their sincerely held religious beliefs or practices in violation of Title VII.”

With the lawsuit, the Justice Department is seeking compensatory damages for Williams, along with injunctive and “other appropriate relief.”

In a brief email statement to McKnight's Tuesday night, County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said, “The county will file a motion to dismiss the Justice Department lawsuit and believe that current case law will support our motion,” declining to comment further.

The county has since eliminated the letter requirement, according to the complaint. Williams is no longer employed at the nursing home.