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Health care workers sue R.I. for not accepting religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine

“If across America religious exemptions can be accommodated consistent with patient safety, then as a matter of law and logic, the same applies here,” wrote the lawyer for the unvaccinated health care workers

Robin Mercier, a Lifespan Health Care registered nurse, receives a new COVID-19 vaccine in Providence in December 2020.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — A group of health care workers in Rhode Island whose requests for religious exemptions to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied have filed for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Governor Dan McKee and state health department director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.

The mandate requires that all health care workers in Rhode Island be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1 or risk losing their jobs. The 36-page motion, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court, asks a judge to consider religious exemptions on the same basis as medical exemptions.

“If across America religious exemptions can be accommodated consistent with patient safety, then as a matter of law and logic, the same applies here,” wrote attorney Joseph Larisa Jr., who is representing the unvaccinated health care workers. (A former mayor of East Providence, Larisa is also the former chief of staff and executive council to governor Lincoln Almond.)

The plaintiffs are not named in the case filings, but are identified as a nurse employed by Lifespan, a Rhode Island medical school student, a health unit coordinator at a hospital that was not named, and a doctor who is employed in a “Rhode Island medical practice with other physicians.”


According to the motion, the nurse at Lifespan applied for a religious exemption and was denied. In rejecting her request, Lifespan wrote: “While Lifespan was initially prepared to consider exemptions on religious grounds, the Rhode Island [Department of Health] regulation that was published on Aug. 17, 2021, several weeks after Lifespan announced its program, only provides for exemptions for a narrow set of medical conditions. It does not provide health care workers in a DOH licensed health care facility with the possibility of a religious exemption.”

The nurse states that she inquired about another job with an unnamed Rhode Island-based health care provider, but was told, “our stance regarding the COVID vaccine is that [we are] following whatever the states require us to do. So if they end up accepting a religious exemption, then yes you can come on board and submit a request for your religious exemption.”


The health unit coordinator allegedly submitted a religious exemption request, which Larisa said was first approved by the hospital. She agreed to masking and testing twice a weekly. Then, on Sept. 20, the hospital withdrew the exemption. Her employer sent her a letter that said, “you have been approved for an exemption from the COVID-19 vaccine based upon sincerely held religious beliefs... The State of Rhode Island has implemented regulations and there is one part that causes [the] hospital undo hardship to allow you to work. In order for [the] hospital to avoid fines or other penalties, you will not be allowed to work without having the vaccine. As of Oct. 1, 2021, you will be put on unpaid leave status pending a change to the legislation or you receiving the vaccine.”

The medical school student allegedly received a religious exemption from her school, but the hospital where she clerks did not accept her request for an exemption, leaving her unable to meet her medical school educational requirements.

Both the nurse and student have had COVID-19, according to court filings.

The complaint said that health care workers who did receive medical exemptions will be able to keep their jobs if they follow a mask mandate and continue COVID-19 testing. Larisa also outlined how health care workers who do not follow their employer’s-- or the state’s-- COVID-19 vaccine mandates will likely not be eligible for unemployment, and could lose their medical licenses.


A hearing on the motion was scheduled for Friday. US District judge Mary S. McElroy, who was nominated by former president Donald Trump after former president Barack Obama recommended her, is expected to preside over the case.

Annemarie Beardsworth, a spokeswoman for the state health department, said Friday that because of the impending lawsuit, she could not comment as to why the state is not accepting religious exemptions. Lexi Kriss, a spokeswoman for the governor, sent a short statement: “We don’t comment on pending litigation.”

However, other states, such as New York, have also removed religious exemptions from their COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

When McKee’s mandate was announced, many health care workers opposed to the vaccine spoke out. Many immediately submitted religious and medical exemptions and were denied. They’ve protested at the State House, outside of their hospitals of employment, and on social media. According to Cathy Duquette, chief nursing executive for Lifespan, “a little less than 1,000″ employees at the state’s largest health care system are not yet fully vaccinated. About 10 percent of CharterCARE’s employees are still unvaccinated, Otis Brown, spokesman for CharterCARE, told the Globe.

Health care workers opposed to the mandate have told the Globe that they accept they will lose their jobs because of it.


Some employers are pointing out that request for religious exemptions are not necessarily based on religion. Our Lady of Fatima Hospital in North Providence sent a letter to one applicant that said: “The information you provided... does not establish a religious exemption. Rather it reflects a personal or political view. Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious believes are not protected by Title VII.”

McKee and Alexander-Scott have made it clear that “shots in arms” would help Rhode Island bounce back from the pandemic, and with about a week left until the the mandate’s Oct. 1 deadline, several union leaders have sided with the state. Patrick Quinn, executive vice president of SEIU 1199 New England, said the vaccine mandate is “a critical step toward controlling and ending the pandemic,” but acknowledged that not everyone can and will be vaccinated by Oct. 1.

Lynn Blais, the president of the United Nurses & Allied Professionals, told the Globe recently, “The state, legally, can impose this mandate. Anyone looking to go and fight this in court will be doing so for years.”

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.