NorthShore University Health System, which operates six hospitals in Chicago and its northern suburbs, will pay more than $10 million to hundreds of workers who were either fired or threatened with termination when the hospital refused to recognize their religious objections to the hospital operator’s order to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

Under a settlement deal, about 500 current and former NorthShore employees will receive up to $24,000 each, and potentially get their jobs back.

The hospital system also agreed to rewrite its policies to accommodate religious objectors in all positions within its organization, to align with religious freedom protections within federal civil rights law. Further, NorthShore can no longer bar unvaccinated employees with religious exemptions from any position within its organization, according to the settlement.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers, from religious freedom defense non-profit Liberty Counsel, will receive about $2.06 million in fees, or about 20% of the total settlement funds. They note this is significantly less than the 33% typically awarded to plaintiffs’ lawyers under most class actions.

On Dec. 19, U.S. District Judge John F. Kness ruled from the bench at the close of a hearing in Chicago federal court. According to a docket statement, the judge found the settlement to be “fair, reasonable and adequate.” The judge said he would issue a formal written order finalizing approval of the settlement, potentially as soon as Dec. 26.

The hearing came a week after both parties submitted a joint motion seeking final approval of the settlement.

The settlement would end potentially hundreds of claims against NorthShore that began to land in court in the fall of 2021.

Workers sued NorthShore after the health care organization ordered all of its 18,000 employees, contractors and volunteers to receive a full dose of an approved Covid vaccine by the end of October 2021, or likely lose their jobs.

NorthShore operates six Chicago area hospitals, including Evanston Hospital; Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview; Highland Park Hospital; Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights; Skokie Hospital; and Swedish Hospital in Chicago.

The lawsuits were ultimately combined into a single class action on behalf of more than 500 workers. The legal action claimed NorthShore had illegally forced the workers to choose between keeping their jobs or violating their sincerely held religious beliefs, in violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act.

Many said they provided the hospital with detailed explanations of their religious objections to the vaccines, most centered on their understanding that the vaccines were developed, in part, using cell lines obtained from aborted fetuses.

They said their interpretation of Christian scripture, as found in the Bible, concerning the sacred nature of human life, led them to reject medical treatments derived, in any part, from such fetal cell lines.

However, they claimed NorthShore still refused their exemption requests, through a review process that called a “sham,” set up to conceal their desire to “purge” religious adherents from the hospitals’ employment ranks.

The case also asserted NorthShore took these actions without any evidence that unvaccinated employees posed any greater health risk to patients, than vaccinated employees who may also contract and spread Covid.

After a federal judge declined to grant them an injunction preventing NorthShore from taking action, hundreds of employees who were refused religious exemptions, and who still refused to receive a Covid vaccine, were fired.

Court documents indicated hundreds more NorthShore workers intended to file similar lawsuits in the months that followed.

Faced with such growing expensive litigation threats and the potential for steep losses in court, NorthShore opted to settle the case.

The plaintiffs and NorthShore told the court they had reached the settlement in May 2022. The settlement was presented to the court and made public in July.

Under the settlement, NorthShore continued to deny the workers’ legal claims, and admitted no wrongdoing.

However, the hospital operator agreed to rewrite its policies to accommodate religious beliefs, as the law requires, and agreed to pay $10.3 million.

Under the deal, those who were fired for citing their religious beliefs in objecting to the Covid vaccine mandate will receive more than $24,000 each.

Workers whose religious objections were rejected, and then took the vaccine under threat of termination, will receive more than $3,000 each.

The named plaintiffs in the lawsuits will receive an additional $20,000 each.

Payments would be made 60 to 90 days after the settlement receives final approval.

Additionally, NorthShore agreed to consider rehiring those who were fired, with no loss of employment seniority. It is not yet known how many of those were terminated will seek to recover their jobs, or how many may have applied or have been rehired.

In a statement earlier this summer about the settlement, Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Mat Staver said: “The bullying and abuse these and many other health care professionals received over these shot mandates is absolutely appalling.”

Lawyers from Liberty Counsel said the settlement should serve as a warning and “wake-up call” to employers who may similarly refuse to recognize employees’ religious objections to similar mandates that force workers to choose between taking the jab or keeping their jobs.

Plaintiffs were represented by Liberty Counsel attorneys Horatio Mihet, Mat Staver, Roger K. Gannam and Daniel J. Schmid; and Sorin A. Leahu, of Leahu Law Group, of Chicago.

NorthShore has been represented by attorneys Kevin P. Simpson, Nasir Hussain and Savannah L. Murin, of Winston & Strawn, of Chicago; and Marc R. Jacobs, of Seyfarth Shaw, of Chicago.

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