SNF flu-shot mandate draws religious discrimination suit

Share this content:

The federal government sued Wisconsin's Ozaukee County in March, alleging that a county-owned nursing home discriminated against a former nursing assistant by forcing her to get a flu shot.

According to the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Barnell Williams asked Lasata Care Center for a religious exemption from the facility's mandate that all employees receive a flu shot.

The nursing home asked that she provide a note from her clergy leader supporting the exemption. After Williams could not provide the letter because she did not belong to a church or organized religion, the nursing home administrator did not offer an alternative way of verifying her religious beliefs, the lawsuit claims.

Williams agreed to the flu shot, despite her objections, for fear of being terminated, and then allegedly suffered emotional distress that included withdrawing from work and her personal life, sleep problems and anxiety. The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages for Williams' “pain and suffering” and “additional relief as justice may require.”

The Justice Department said in its complaint that Lasata's requirement violated Title VII, a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination because of religion.

“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,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore, with the Civil Rights Division, in a press release.

In an email to McKnight's, Ozaukee 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.”

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