In a fast-moving court case, a judge on Friday granted the state of Oklahoma a temporary restraining order prohibiting Ascension St. John Health System from implementing its employee vaccination mandate.
Tulsa County Presiding District Judge William LaFortune issued the order late Friday at the request of Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor.
The order comes after the attorney general filed a lawsuit earlier in the day seeking to prevent Ascension St. John from suspending or firing employees who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and whose religious exemption has been denied.
The lawsuit, filed in Tulsa County District Court, also sought an emergency temporary restraining order banning the hospital from implementing its vaccination requirement until O’Connor’s office could investigate religious discrimination and other claims made against Ascension St. John.
Details of LaFortune’s order were not immediately available. The judge set a Dec. 1 hearing date on the state’s emergency request.
However, also late Friday attorneys for Ascension St. John moved the case to federal court. It was unclear how the legal move would affect the temporary restraining order.
In its notice of removal of the case from state court, Ascension claims that Tulsa federal court is the proper venue for the lawsuit because the court has original jurisdiction on some of O’Connor’s claims and supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.
The lawsuit names various affiliates of Ascension St. John Health System, including Ascension Medical Group St. John LLC.
“The Attorney General seeks an emergency temporary restraining order and temporary injunctive relief, stopping Ascension from suspending or firing any Oklahoma healthcare heroes who refuse to abandon their sincerely held religious beliefs until the (Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights Enforcement) has completed its investigation or until the Attorney General and Ascension have reached a conciliation agreement,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims that the Office of Civil Rights Enforcement has received an unspecified number of complaints from individuals who work for Ascension St. John and have had their requests for a religious exemption to the vaccination order denied.
“After initial investigation of complaints accusing Ascension of discrimination, the OCRE has found reasonable cause to believe Ascension has engaged in unlawful discrimination,” the lawsuit states.
In response to questions from the Tulsa World, Ascension St. John issued the following statement:
“As a leading healthcare provider, we continue to put the safety of our associates and those we are privileged to serve at the forefront of everything we do. This is why we have required our associates to receive both the COVID-19 vaccine and the influenza vaccine.
“We want patients to be assured and comforted with the knowledge that our doctors and nurses, other clinicians and associates, working in one of our hospitals or other sites of care, will either be vaccinated against both COVID-19 and influenza, or in the instances of exemptions or accommodations, be complying with additional infection prevention protocols.
“Patients and their loved ones should have that peace of mind as they entrust us with their care.”
The bulk of the 15-page petition describes unsuccessful attempts by Dr. Mitchell W. Duininck to obtain a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement.
The lawsuit describes the family medicine physician as president and chief executive officer since 2006 of In His Image Inc., a Christian community-based family medicine residency training program at Ascension St. John Medical Center in Tulsa.
The lawsuit says Ascension twice rejected Duininck’s attempts to obtain the religious exemption to the vaccine. One email to Duininck from Ascension officials stated that granting him a religious exemption would present an undue hardship “because the vaccine is the most effective means to mitigate the risk to patient and workplace safety,” according to the lawsuit.
Ascension announced in late July that it would require its employees, volunteers and vendors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before Friday, Nov. 12, the same timeline imposed for employees to receive the influenza vaccine.
The lawsuit claims that those who are suspended and still fail to obtain their COVID-19 vaccination will be fired on Jan. 4
The lawsuit goes on to claim that St. Louis-based Ascension, “one of the largest Catholic health care systems in the United States, wholly rejects the Vatican/Pope Francis’ position that ‘vaccination, is not, as a rule, a moral obligation, and that therefore, it must be voluntary,’” partially quoting a statement released in December 2020 by the Vatican regarding the morality of using some COVID-19 vaccinations.
At issue for some is the use of lab-replicated fetal cells, known as fetal cell lines, during the COVID-19 vaccination production process. Some have expressed religious objections to the use of the vaccinations based on the use of fetal cell lines.
But the Vatican in a statement released in December clarified that “when ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”
A Reuters Fact Check in April noted that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine used human fetal cells in its production and manufacturing stages while the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines used fetal cell lines in their testing stages.