Barnell Williams didn’t want a flu shot.
But the nursing home where she worked forced her to get one, she alleges, even after she explained that the vaccine went against her religious beliefs. Her body, Williams allegedly told her employer, was a “Holy Temple,” and the Bible prohibited her from putting foreign substances into it.
On Tuesday, the federal government sued Wisconsin’s Ozaukee County, claiming that Williams faced religious discrimination in 2016 when the county-owned nursing home, Lasata Care Center, mandated she get a flu shot in order to continue working there. Williams, a certified nursing assistant, had worked at the nursing home from December 2015 to June 2017, according to the lawsuit.
“When Lasata denied Ms. Williams’ request for a religious exemption, she submitted to the flu shot, despite her religious objections, because she was told that her refusal would result in her termination,” the Department of Justice said in a statement.
The nursing home, located in Cedarsburg, Wis., did allow their employees to be exempt from an annual flu shot on the basis of religion. But it required employees to submit a “written statement from their clergy leader supporting the exception with a clear reason and explanation,” according to the lawsuit. Those who were exempt would wear protective face masks during the flu season.
Williams at the time did not belong to a specific church or organized religion and therefore couldn’t get a clergy leader to write her an exemption before the nursing home’s deadline. She explained her situation to the nursing home’s administrator at the time, who did not offer Williams an alternative way of verifying her religious beliefs, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the administrator told Williams that if she did not get vaccinated, “Consider this your last day.”
Williams, who felt she had no choice, reluctantly agreed to get her flu shot, the lawsuit says. Once she did, she “cried uncontrollably,” according to the lawsuit, and suffered emotional distress that included “withdrawing from work and her personal life, suffering from sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of ‘going to Hell’ because she had disobeyed the Bible by receiving the shot.”
She still suffers from emotional distress, according to the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages for Williams’s “pain and suffering” in addition to “additional relief as justice may require.”
The lawsuit alleges that the nursing home’s policy violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, sex and religion. Lasata has since eliminated their clergy letter requirement, according to the lawsuit.
“The policy on its face denied religious accommodations to employees, like Ms. Williams, who do not belong to churches with clergy leaders,” DOJ officials said.
Williams’s complaint was first investigated by the Chicago District Office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which referred it to the DOJ.