Neelie Panozzo is a 25-year veteran of the health care industry, serving as both a nurse and a nurse practitioner. She said nursing is her passion and she knows it is what God called her to do. But with vaccine mandates forcing her to choose between her faith and her profession, she fears she may have to find a new job.
"It’s disheartening to know that I will lose my job over my choice not to vaccinate," she said in an interview with Fox News Digital. "And there are so many others fighting just like I am."
Panozzo has chosen to fight the mandate, and is one of six nurses suing Riverside Healthcare in Kankakee, Illinois after being told she would be fired for not receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Daniel Suhr of the Liberty Justice Center, who is representing Panozzo, told Fox News Digital that Riverside Healthcare’s actions were both wrong and illegal.
"Illinois law is very clear that people like Neelie don’t have to be coerced into choosing between their faith and their job," he said. "So we’re bringing this lawsuit in order to protect nurses like Neelie and make sure that they can continue living out their passion for patients without having to compromise their values."
Many lawmakers and members of the media have vilified those who have not taken the vaccine, even for religious exemptions, as is Panozzo’s case.
An opinion in the Chicago Tribune called it a "convenient excuse," and a Washington Post article written by University of California Hastings College of Law professor Dorit Reiss claimed many are "using religion as a cover for something else."
Panozzo pushed back on these statements.
"Understanding that we have sincerely held beliefs is really important and that we are no less of a person because of our faith," she said. "We need to be able to respect each other and respect our rights to choose and respect sincerely held beliefs."
Both Panozzo and Suhr emphasized that the vaccine mandate and lawsuit had far-reaching implications beyond just a few people.
Panozzo emphasized that firing nurses and other healthcare professionals that have not gotten the vaccine could lower the quality of care Americans experience at hospitals and clinics.
A protest against mandated vaccination took place in front of Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance on Friday, October 1, 2021. The event was organized by a nurse representing more than 40 colleagues facing suspension over their choice to not (Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images / Getty Images)
"My entire nursing career, we’ve been in some type of health care shortage," she said. "And now that many institutions across the United States are going to lose, you know, hundreds of health care workers, it’s going to be really difficult to be able to provide care for patients when they do come into the hospital or into the emergency rooms."
Suhr also noted that the issue is about more than just the freedom to choose whether or not to get the COVID vaccine.
"This may be the issue today, but in the future, it might be a different question whether the law and whether our society protects the rights the rights of conscience," he said. "It makes sure all of us have that protection when it’s our particular conviction."
"We should be able to live in a society where we respect and appreciate one another’s individual beliefs," he continued. "Especially on this sort of important, deeply held faith matters and never put someone in a position where they have to choose between their job and their faith. That’s what’s happening right now, and we’re going to court to stop it."
In a statement to Fox News Digital, Riverside Healthcare said, "As a healthcare provider, we believe protecting the health and safety of our patients and employees is our top responsibility and must be our number one priority. While we cannot comment on specifics related to pending litigation, we remain fully confident requiring our employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine will allow us to provide the safest environment possible for everyone we serve. It is also important to know that the vast majority of our employees have either received the vaccine or an approved medical or religious/strongly held belief exemption. We continue to be deeply grateful to all members of our team."
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