Sister Dede’s Medical License Restored, After Temporary Religious Exemption From Vaccine Mandate for Health Care Workers
After she sued Washington, D.C., reprieve was granted — but it doesn’t resolve all of the issues raised in her lawsuit.
The religious sister who sued Washington, D.C., for denying her a religious exemption to its COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers has received a temporary reprieve. Sister Dierdre Byrne, a nun who is also a physician-surgeon and a retired U.S. Army colonel, told the Register the Washington officials notified her Friday that her medical license would remain active until September.
Known by many as “Sister Dede,” she served in Afghanistan as an Army reservist. She is now a medical director at her convent’s free clinic, operates an abortion-pill reversal ministry, and volunteers with local hospitals and clinics to care for the indigent and undocumented in our nation’s capital. Sister Dede describes her religious order — the Little Workers — as “a community that puts everyone between the hearts of Jesus and Mary, and we try to serve Our Lord in any ministry that God is calling us to do.”
Last August, Washington officials began requiring health care workers in the District of Columbia to be vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. The policy includes exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Sister Dede, noting that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States “have been tested, developed, or produced with cell lines derived from abortions,” objects to the city’s vaccine on religious grounds. Although both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have said that receiving a COVID-19 vaccination is permissible, they have also insisted it is not morally required and generally should not be mandated.
On Sept. 17, Sister Dede applied for a religious exemption. Earlier this month, the religious sister learned that her request was denied and that her medical license was suspended. She received via email an unsigned letter from the District. Granting Sister Dede a religious exemption would pose an “undue hardship,” the letter stated. During the time between filing her request for an exemption and the city’s denial, she practiced medicine. Not one of the hospitals and clinics where Sister Dede offered unpaid volunteer medical services for those in need expressed any objection, she told the Register.
Unable to continue her work of mercy with a suspended medical license, Sister Dede closed her clinic for the month. As first reported on EWTN’s The World Over, the Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit on March 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Sister Dede’s behalf against Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, health department and other officials. The suit claims that Washington’s refusal to exempt Sister Dede from its vaccine mandate violates her fundamental right to the free exercise of her religion as protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
Friday’s letter notifying Sister Dede that her license was now active until September doesn’t resolve all of the issues raised in her lawsuit. Specifically, the letter states: “If at a later date the director finds that it is in the best interest of public health, the exemption granted to you may be rescinded.”
Sister Dede’s lawyer, Christopher Ferrara of the Thomas More Society, remains concerned. Whether or not someone qualifies for a religious exemption, he said, has been replaced by a new standard: “You can practice until we say otherwise.”
Thankfully, Sister Dede can once again see patients. But this is not the end of the story. Is Sister Dede being treated differently than the others who object to Washington’s mandate? If so, why? What exactly does the letter mean that she is able to practice unless it is not in the “best interest of public health”? Who decides?
Sister Dede’s lawyers are preparing to discuss these issues and more with Washington’s attorneys on Monday. In the meantime, Sister Dede told the Register she is planning to reopen the medical clinic and has surgeries scheduled for the coming week. For Sister Dede, there’s a sense of relief that she can practice now, yet she continues to raise the alarm for other doctors and nurses with similar religious objections to the vaccine.
Said Sister Dede, “I really don’t want this to be my own little battle.”