Pediatrician Paul Halczenko, MD awaits a decision in an appeal he filed against Ascension Health, his employer for the last ten years. Dr. Halczenko and four other health care workers, were put on leave from their job at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital after refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19 for religious reasons when it was mandated as a condition of employment for 14,700 employees in Indiana.1 2
Dr. Halczenko is one of only three pediatric intensive care unit doctors in Indiana. He and four other health care workers sued Ascension and St. Vincent Hospital for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act “by systematically and callously failing to accommodate their religious beliefs and denying their requests for exemption without giving individualized consideration of, or individualized responses to, each request.”3
Doctor Alleges Religious Discrimination
The four other health care workers who filed suit along with the doctor were allowed to return to work when Ascension repealed the vaccine mandate in December 2021. However, Dr. Halczenko, who works in critical care for pediatric patients, was told that he was not allowed to return to work.4 William Bock III, attorney for the doctor, points out that no reason was given as to why the doctor was singled out and prevented from returning to work along with the other previously suspended workers. He said:
We have no explanation for why Dr. Halczenko is treated differently. We believe that it’s religious discrimination.5
Dr. Halczenko argued that, should he not be granted a preliminary injunction and be allowed to return to work, his skills as a highly specialized pediatric intensive care doctor as well as his reputation would suffer irreparable harm. However, Judge James Patrick Hanlon denied the doctor’s request for a temporary injunction stating that he found that the doctor, “has failed to make a ‘substantial showing’ of irreparable injury” that would necessitate him being reinstated in his position by way of a temporary injunction.6
The court stated that, should he prevail on the Title VII claims, Dr. Halczenko could ultimately be made whole without the court issuing a preliminary injunction.7
At the same time, the court noted that Ascension provided almost no supporting evidence as to the reason why the doctor’s religious exemption was denied, but concluded that the defendant’s motivation behind the denial of the accommodation is not a matter to be resolved at a preliminary injunction hearing.
Doctor Argues the COVID Vaccine Does Not Prevent Transmission of Infection
The judge, failing to find that the doctor’s reputation would suffer an irreparable injury as a result of being put on administrative leave due to his religious beliefs, wrote:
And, here the claimed reputational injury—and corresponding impediment to finding a comparable job—would arise from the undisputed, truthful fact that Dr. Halczenko’s employment was terminated because he did not get vaccinated against COVID-19”8
Dr. Halczenko defended his position, saying:
Well, first I would say I am following the science. The preponderance of the evidence suggests and even as we know no —not necessarily at the time of the lawsuit, but certainly in the intervening weeks and months—that vaccination does not actually prevent transmission. So, the best protection that I can offer to my patients is to use the personal protective equipment and the other measures that are employed by health care workers across the world and have been demonstrated to be effective.9
Ascension responded to these allegations…
It is in the public’s interest to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the risk of serious illness to St. Vincent’s patients, employees, and visitors. This public interest in reducing the risk of transmission among patients and employees outweighs any interest asserted by Halczenko.10
This matter was heard before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals on May 31 and a decision is pending.11
Ascension Health Faces More Lawsuits Due to Its COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate
A group of 64 health care workers are also suing Ascension Health and St. Vincent Hospital in a class action lawsuits for having been suspended without pay after they refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine. The employees objected to the vaccine on religious grounds and filed religious exemption to the vaccine mandate. The employees argue that Ascension failed to properly assess each individual religious exemption application.
The lawsuit alleges:
Ascension Health established a coercive process calculated to force healthcare workers and staff to abandon their religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccination and receive the vaccination against their will.13
The employees were suspended without pay beginning Nov. 12, 2021 and told that, if they failed to get the vaccine by Jan. 4, 2022, they would be fired. In December, Ascension repealed the vaccine mandate and allowed the employees who filed a religious exemption to return to work.
The employees are requesting that Ascension be found guilty of violating federal discrimination laws and be ordered to pay them for the time they were suspended, as well as other compensation.14
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Click here to view References:
1 Magdaleno V. St. Vincent workers who declined COVID-19 vaccine sue hospital for religious discrimination. Yahoo News May 31, 2022.
2 Judge refuses to reinstate unvaccinated pediatric doctor at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. Wish TV Jan. 3, 2022.
3 Paul Halczenko Dr., et al. v. Ascension Health Inc. et al. No. 1:21-cv-02816-JPH-MG. (S.D. Ind. 2021)
4 Magdaleno V. St. Vincent workers who declined COVID-19 vaccine sue hospital for religious discrimination. Yahoo News May 31, 2022.
5 James A. Laid-off doctor who refused vaccine seeks legal relief after nurses similarly laid off are recalled to work. Med City News June 2, 2022.
6 Judge refuses to reinstate unvaccinated pediatric doctor at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. Wish TV Jan. 3, 2022.
7 Paul Halczenko Dr., et al. v. Ascension Health Inc. et al. No. 1:21-cv-02816-JPH-MG. (S.D. Ind. 2021)
9 Johnson D. Unvaccinated Indy pediatric doctor: ‘Ultimately, I have to answer to God’. Wish TV Jan. 4, 2022.
10 Iofolla R. Ascension’s Vaccine Exemption Denial Under Scrutiny on Appeal. Bloomberg Law May 27, 2022.
12 Magdaleno V. St. Vincent workers who declined COVID-19 vaccine sue hospital for religious discrimination. Yahoo News May 31, 2022.