Massachusetts Hospital Employees, Citing Religious Concerns to COVID Vaccines, Sue to Keep Their Jobs

Workers with Mass General Brigham risk firing for being unvaccinated.

A view of Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, one of the hospitals Mass General Brigham operates, is seen on March 7, 2020. Employees of the hospital corporation risk being fired Nov. 5 if they remain unvaccinated.
A view of Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, one of the hospitals Mass General Brigham operates, is seen on March 7, 2020. Employees of the hospital corporation risk being fired Nov. 5 if they remain unvaccinated. (photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP via Getty Images)

BOSTON — More than 200 employees of a hospital corporation in Massachusetts have filed a lawsuit to try to keep their jobs if they don’t get one of the coronavirus vaccines as the company requires.

As things stand, they risk being fired Nov. 5 if they remain unvaccinated.

The workers, who call themselves “Together Employees,” cite religious and medical objections to the vaccines.

“This is not about the COVID vaccine. It’s about religious freedom and religious protection — and about disability protection,” said Ryan McLane, of McLane & McLane, a law firm in Feeding Hills, who filed suit on behalf of the employees on Oct. 17 in U.S. district court in Boston. Eight of the 229 plaintiffs are named in the complaint.

The plaintiffs’ suit claims the hospital corporation is violating the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and the federal Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of physical disabilities.

A spokesman for Mass General Brigham, the defendant, which operates 14 hospitals in eastern Massachusetts, did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did a lawyer representing Mass General Brigham in the case. Lawyers had not yet filed in court a response to the plaintiffs’ complaint as of the deadline for this story.

Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV on Oct. 20 denied a request for a preliminary injunction against the hospital corporation, but scheduled a further hearing for the first week of November, shortly before the employees are to be fired.


Hospital Sets Its Policy

On June 24, Mass General Brigham announced that it would require all 80,000 of its employees to get a coronavirus vaccine once the federal Food and Drug Administration approved one. That happened Aug. 23. Hospital officials contend they are trying to stop the spread of coronavirus and keep people safe.

“The evidence of COVID-19 vaccine safety and effectiveness is overwhelming. Getting vaccinated is the single most important and responsible step each of us can take to put an end to this devastating pandemic and protect patients, families and each other,” said Dr. Anne Klibanski, the president and chief executive officer of Mass General Brigham, in a written statement in June.

Hospital employees who object to getting a coronavirus vaccine say hospital administrators have acted unreasonably.

Among the exhibits filed with the complaint is an email message dated Aug. 18 from a Mass General Brigham doctor (whose named is redacted in court papers) responding to an employee who sought a medical exemption from the vaccine because of health problems. The doctor expressed sympathy, but then wrote: “As specialists, our Division has already told us that we cannot offer any medical exemptions for the COVID vaccine — not even for anaphylaxis or severe allergic reactions or primary or secondary immunodeficiencies.”

Another plaintiff (whose name is blacked out in court papers) said the hospital he works at granted him religious exemptions from other vaccines for more than seven years but then denied his request for a religious exemption from the coronavirus vaccine. A hospital administrator wrote in an email message dated Oct. 4, “You have received religious exemptions in the past; however, they do not carry over from one year to the next. We have implemented a new process this year to evaluate requests for religious exemptions, and this year your request is denied.”


Religious-Exemptions Committee

The “new process,” according to McLane, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, consists of a review by a religious-exemptions committee whose members the hospital corporation has not disclosed. The committee issues decisions on requests for exemptions from which there is no appeal. McLane says he doesn’t know who the committee members are, what their qualifications are, or what standards they use for deciding requests for exemptions based on religion.

An Oct. 15 email message to one of the plaintiffs from a hospital official included in court papers states: “We will not be providing additional information related to denials or approvals other than the request was reviewed (including any additional documentation prior to the decision), and it was either approved or denied.”

Three of the plaintiffs spoke by telephone with the Register, each during a three-way call with one of their lawyers, Lauren Bradford, of McLane & McLane. Each of those interviewed is a Catholic.

Megan Falcone, 37, has worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for about 15 years, including 10 years as a registered nurse. It’s one of the hospitals Mass General Brigham operates.

From March to June 2020, the thoracic unit she worked in turned into a coronavirus unit. She said she prayed by the side of sick and dying patients whose family members weren’t allowed to see them for fear of spreading the virus.

In late March 2020, Falcone and her family got the virus. The symptoms were relatively mild. She figures she and her family have natural immunity.

Falcone said she feels she has a duty based on her understanding of Scripture not to take a vaccine she doesn’t think she needs where the long-term effects (if any) are unknown. She cites St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, which includes in verses 19 and 20: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.”

“You shouldn’t be forced to take something that you don’t believe in,” Falcone said. “It’s a basic understanding of life that we have a right to choose what goes into our body.”


Cell Lines From Abortion

She also objects to the use that pharmaceutical companies made of cell lines taken from an aborted fetus. The Pfizer and Moderna coronavirus vaccines were tested against cell lines based on the cells of a fetus aborted in 1973. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was produced using cell lines based on the cells of a fetus aborted in 1985.

“I can’t imagine the need for using aborted fetal cells in anything,” Falcone said. “There has to be a better way.”

Alyson Doucette, 26, has been working as a child life specialist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital in Boston for about two years. She helps prepare kids emotionally and psychologically for surgery.

She said she does not generally oppose the coronavirus vaccines — getting the shot may make sense, she said, for her grandparents and for people with multiple health problems who might be likely to die if they get the virus. But as a healthy person in her mid-20s classified as low risk, she doesn’t see why she should take something with unknown long-term effects amid a shifting narrative from public-health officials.

She puts her reluctance in religious terms. As a practicing Catholic, she said she doesn’t take contraceptive pills or drink heavily, and she sees her objection to taking one of the coronavirus vaccines as “a general respect for my body and a hesitancy to adopt irreversible change.”

“All of this has led me to form my conscience that this is something I should not be participating in. Going against my conscience would be a sin that would separate me from God,” Doucette said.


‘Spread a Little Joy’

Raechel Morganto is a nuclear medicine technologist at Massachusetts Brigham Salem Hospital (known until recently as North Shore Medical Center). She has worked there for about 14 years.

Morganto performs tests that help determine how far diseases such as cancer have progressed.

“I love doing what I do because I’m there with people on some of their hardest days. It has always been helpful to have my faith background, to try to spread a little joy, to try to spread a little light. I try to change a person’s day when I come in,” Morganto said.

But she’s ready to walk away from the job for good in early November if the hospital insists on the vaccine requirement.

“It mostly has to do with the fact that I do not support abortion. I support the right to life, which I deeply believe in. Unfortunately, none of these vaccines are completely removed from abortion,” Morganto said.

Morganto is aware that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has said the coronavirus vaccines are “morally licit,” and Pope Francis has advised Catholics to get vaccinated. But she notes that Church leaders have also called for the conscience of individuals to be respected.

“I know that the Church has come out and said, ‘It’s okay, as long as your conscience says it’s okay.’ But my conscience has not been swayed,” Morganto said. “So, unfortunately, that means termination for myself.”

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education and ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told the Register in an email message that some employers “may be tempted to focus on irrelevant details, such as whether getting vaccinated would substantially ‘burden somebody’s religious exercise.’”

A religiously informed conscience needs to be respected, he said, whether the leaders of the religion forbid a certain action or not.

“Technically speaking, Catholics cannot claim that their religion forbids vaccinations, because it does not. But their religion strongly encourages the safeguarding and protection of conscience rights, and conscience exemptions to vaccine mandates need to be liberally available not only to Catholics but to all individuals. Church officials, even as they may personally encourage vaccinations, need to assure that conscience rights are respected by the state,” Father Pacholczyk said.

If an employee shows “a current conviction of conscience” that he does not want to be vaccinated, he said, that ought to be enough to get an exemption from the vaccine.

“Mandates in the absence of such exemptions can easily become intrusive, blunt instruments that end up violating personal liberties, especially in the arena of personal health-care decisions,” Father Pacholczyk said. “Broad vaccine mandates that lack correspondingly broad exemptions rely on the highly flawed presumption that ‘one size fits all.’”