(CHICAGO)—Sixteen Illinois public school personnel are suing Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, the Illinois State Board of Education (SBE), the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), and eight school districts for violating their religious freedoms by making vaccination against COVID-19 mandatory for employment at the start of the 2021-2022 school year.
The teachers and school staff members claim they were suspended from their roles without pay or terminated completely in the fall of 2021 for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
On Sept. 3, 2021, Gov. Pritzker issued COVID-19 Executive Order No. 88, which required public school and higher education employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 19, 2021. (The complaint lists the deadline as Sept. 27, 2021.) If school personnel were not vaccinated by this time or decided against the vaccine for religious or disability-related reasons, they were to be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week at their school before entering.
Shortly after the governor issued the order, the SBE and IDPH concurred, stating those who failed to get vaccinated or who refused weekly, on-site testing would be fired. The Illinois Federation of Teachers also supported Order 88, while advocating for testing options for teachers and staff who declined the vaccine.
The federal lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District Court of Illinois on Sept. 20, says the plaintiffs declined COVID-19 vaccination “due to their sincerely held religious beliefs” which “prevent them from submitting to health care procedures which they reasonably believe relied, in whole or in part, for research and development on the use of stem cells or other materials obtained from aborted fetuses.”
The plaintiffs assert that the COVID-19 vaccine is not medically necessary, adding that they prefer to follow less-invasive practices to protect against the virus, like “self-monitoring, wearing a mask when appropriate,” and “reasonable testing requirements.”
Beyond violating their religious freedoms, the plaintiffs claim Order 88 is a form of discrimination against employees based on personal health care decisions. They further claim the vaccination and testing requirements in question violate the Emergency Use Authorization Act, which states a person has a right to refuse administration of the vaccine.
Janelle Hermann, a plaintiff and teacher for Danville School District, is not new to the fight against vaccine mandates. In Oct. 2021, she sought a separate injunction and temporary restraining order against her district for requiring masks in school, COVID-19 vaccines for all staff, and regular testing for unvaccinated individuals, according to The Piatt County Journal-Republican.
At a Danville school board meeting, Hermann said she feared the COVID-19 vaccine would trigger negative immune responses in her body. She recounted suffering physical and mental distress after two miscarriages in recent years. “My immune system was completely out of whack as it aggressively attacked anything that entered my body,” The Journal-Republican reported Hermann said at the meeting. “Just because it is right for one person, doesn’t make it right for another,” she said of the vaccine.
In an email, a spokesperson for Gov. Pritzker’s office stated, “This is not the first lawsuit filed by politically motivated actors seeking to protest vaccine and testing requirements for teachers, and like past actions, we do not expect it to hold much water in court.”
‘One of many public health requirements’
The statement added Gov. Pritzker followed CDC and IDPH guidance in creating Order 88, “which is one of many immunization and public health requirements for school staff as is allowed under state law.” The spokesperson noted the governor’s office rolled back the testing mandate for unvaccinated staff in September, “rendering the issue at the heart of this lawsuit moot.”
The eight boards of education included in the complaint are from school districts #189 (East St. Louis), #186 (Springfield), #124 (Milford), #5 (Ball Chatham), #118 (Danville), #2 (Herscher), #40 (Effingham), and the Board of Trustees of Heartland Community College.
Several plaintiffs did return to work after unpaid suspensions, according to the suit. Upon their return, they reported malicious acts from co-workers and supervisors, including “loss of personal items, unfavorable work reassignments, gossip and snide comments,” and unspecified “discriminatory COVID-19 testing requirements.”
The plaintiffs request a temporary restraining order preventing Gov. Pritzker, the SBE, the IDPH, and each plaintiff’s respective school district from “enforcing, threatening to enforce, attempting to enforce, or otherwise requiring compliance with the mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy” or discriminating against individuals opting out of the vaccine. They also seek a declaratory judgment stating the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy is illegal. The suit demands at least $300,000 in damages per plaintiff, an amount that includes the cost of “pain and suffering” plaintiffs experienced because of the mandatory policy, plus attorney’s fees.
In November, all 11 defendants filed motions to dismiss the case, citing a failure on the part of the plaintiffs to clearly align each complaint with a specific defendant and plaintiff. According to a motion to dismiss filed by the Ball Chatham School Board, the “ambiguity renders the district unable to adequately assess which allegations are raised against it.”