Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor. / oag.ok.gov
Denver Newsroom, Nov 17, 2021 / 07:38 am (CNA).
Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor on Monday issued a cease and desist letter to Ascension, after the Catholic healthcare group reportedly suspended an unspecified number of employees who did not receive a COVID-19 vaccine before a Nov. 12 deadline.
Ascension St. John, a hospital in Tulsa, reportedly suspended the employees without pay Nov. 12 despite a state court’s emergency temporary restraining order prohibiting the group from taking action against employees who requested, but were denied, a religious exemption to the hospital’s vaccine mandate.
“It appears that Ascension is determined to trample on the sincerely held religious beliefs of the healthcare heroes it employs despite the court’s clear mandate,” O’Connor said in the cease and desist letter.
“Ascension’s actions will also interrupt patient care and prevent patients from being treated by the provider of their choice.”
Local news reports from Nov. 13 suggested that Ascension St. John temporarily reversed its decision to suspend the employees, before resuming the suspensions the same day.
St. Louis-based Ascension, which operates hospitals in Oklahoma, 18 other states, and the District of Columbia, implemented a COVID-19 vaccine mandate on July 27.
The mandate required all employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza by Nov. 12, 2021 or risk suspension, and eventual termination on Jan. 4, 2022.
“As a healthcare provider and as a Catholic ministry, ensuring we have a culture of safety for our associates, patients and communities is foundational to our work,” the mandate says. Ascension is not affiliated with Ascension Press, a Catholic multimedia publisher based in Pennsylvania.
The attorney general’s letter demands that Ascension “immediately cease and desist its defiance of the court’s temporary restraining order,” allow the attorney general’s office time to investigate allegations of religious discrimination, immediately reinstate all suspended employees who applied for a religious exemption, and place employees on their normal work schedule.
Ascension did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.
Judge William D. LaFortune granted a temporary restraining order in Tulsa District Court on Nov. 12 in response to a lawsuit filed that same day by the State of Oklahoma, which accused Ascension of religious discrimination. Healthcare workers who applied for religious exemption were “flatly rejected by Ascension,” O’Connor contended in a press release on Friday.
One such complainant is Mitchell Duininck, a physician at Ascension St. John in Tulsa, who applied for a religious exemption within the deadlines imposed by Ascension, but his request was repeatedly denied, court documents state.
Duininck, a practicing Christian, says he filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights Enforcement after Ascension denied his request on two occasions.
“We will not tolerate any form of religious discrimination against Oklahomans who seek reasonable accommodations from vaccine mandates based on their sincerely held religious beliefs,” O’Connor said.
“No Oklahoman should be forced to choose between a vaccine and their job, when it involves violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
O’Connor called the temporary restraining order “a win for religious freedom” in a tweet late Friday. A hearing is set for Dec. 1 to determine if a temporary injunction should be granted while religious discrimination complaints are investigated.
O’Connor has joined 11 other state attorneys general in a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination requirements for healthcare workers.