Gloved hand placing sign board next to vaccine shots and syringe.
(Credit: lakshmiprasad S / Getty Images)

An Alabama continuing care retirement community is facing a religious discrimination lawsuit after allegedly firing four workers who refused to comply with its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

In the lawsuit filed Thursday in US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, the four former employees — all Christians — of Westminster Village in Spanish Fort, AL, allege religious discrimination, harassment, wrongful termination and a hostile work environment. 

Speech-language pathologist Sloan Hamill, Director of Nursing Katherine L. Howerin, Assistant Director of Nursing Jennifer Sigley and Tina Wolfe, a registered nurse, accused Westminster Village of firing them last fall for declining the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines (Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna) based on sincerely held religious beliefs. 

The suit also names Acts Retirement–Life Communities and Presbyterian Retirement Corp., the owner and operator of Westminster Village.

An Acts Retirement–Life Communities spokesman told McKnight’s Senior Living that it sought to create the “safest living and working environment” for its residents and staff at Westminster Village throughout the pandemic.

“As part of our processes, we implemented a vaccination mandate for all employees and considered the implications of declinations on the health and safety of our communities,” the spokesman said. “As circumstances continue to evolve and the availability of treatments has increased, we have continued to evaluate our protocols and modified them as appropriate.” 

The spokesman said that the employee vaccination mandate remains in place, with accommodations made for those with approved religious and medical exemptions. 

In the lawsuit, the four former workers claim that they “possess sincere religious beliefs that their body is a temple” and they they should not be inoculated or compelled to be inoculated with any “experimental foreign substance or biological / medical materials that will alter the aspects of their human body.”

They argue in the lawsuit that there is a “fundamental difference in traditional vaccines, such as chicken pox or the flu, between the three commercialized COVID-19” vaccines that use mRNA technology. The suit also states that as Christians, they object to receiving ”compulsory injections of any of the experimental vaccines due to the fact and/or belief that the COVID-19 vaccines have been manufactured using fetal cell lines from induced abortions.”

In the lawsuit, the workers said that they were required to prove the sincerity of their beliefs through a “blatantly biased appeal system that completely misunderstood their religious beliefs.” The lawsuit also claims that the organizations denied their exemptions over fears of losing federal COVID-19 relief funds if employees were not vaccinated.

Acts Retirement–Life Communities adopted an employee vaccination mandate on July 30, 2021. Employees providing direct resident care were required to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, 2021, with all other employees required to meet vaccination requirements by Nov. 1.

Sigley and Howerin argued that the religious accommodation requests they filed initially were granted but later were rescinded. Hamill and Wolfe said they similarly filed religious and medical exemption requests, which were denied. All were placed on inactive status on Nov. 1, 2021, with their employment subsequently terminated on Nov. 30, 2021.

The former employees are seeking back pay and lost benefits, as well as the creation of a task force on equality and fairness to determine the effectiveness of the organization’s employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate.