County faces civil rights lawsuit over flu shot

Government alleges county improperly required Lasata nursing home employee to be immunized
Ozaukee Press staff

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Tuesday alleges that Ozaukee County violated the rights of a certified nursing assistant at Lasata Care Center by requiring her to get a flu shot.

The woman, Barnell Williams, said she had no choice but to get the flu shot in 2016 in violation of her religious beliefs or she would have been fired, according to the lawsuit.

Ozaukee County Administrator Jason Dzwinel said the county will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, adding “We believe that there is ample case law to support our motion to dismiss. 

  “This appears to be an attempt by the Department of Justice to expand the definition of religious accommodation under Title VII, and the case is one that we will aggressively defend.”

The county’s policy at the time was to require all Lasata employees to be vaccinated against the flu. Employees could receive a religious exemption if they submitted a written statement from their clergyman supporting the request and wore a protective mask during the flu season.

In 2016, Lasata gave employees until Oct. 24 to receive their vaccinations. 

According to the complaint, Williams met with Lasata Administrator Ralph Luedtke on Oct. 24 and sought a religious exemption, explaining that her interpretation of the Bible prohibits her from putting foreign substances such as vaccinations into her body because it is a “holy temple.”

Luedtke denied the exemption because Williams did not submit a letter from her clergyman, the complaint states, telling Williams that if she did not get the shot, “Consider this your last day.”

Williams said she had no affiliation with a church or organized religion, and thus could not supply the required letter, according to the suit. However, she was prepared to provide a letter explaining her beliefs and to have family members attest to the sincerity of her faith and religious practices. 

Threatened with dismissal, Williams, who worked for Lasata from December 2015 until June 2017, got the flu shot right after her meeting with Luedtke, the complaint states. 

But immediately after receiving the shot, she “became emotionally distraught and cried uncontrollably,” according to the lawsuit. She suffered severe emotional distress, including withdrawing from work and her personal life, and suffered sleep problems, anxiety and a fear of going to hell because she had violated her beliefs — emotional problems that have plagued her to the present.

Williams filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission the day after she received the shot, claiming the county discriminated against her based on religion — a charge the EEOC found reasonable. 

The EEOC unsuccessfully tried to resolve the matter, then referred it to the Department of Justice, which filed the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that requiring a letter from a clergy member was not justified, saying the county could have accommodated Williams’ religious beliefs without this. 

Since the incident, it says, the county has amended its policy and no longer requires a letter from clergy for the exemption.

The lawsuit, which alleges the county refused to provide Williams with a reasonable accommodation, is seeking unspecified damages for pain and suffering.



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