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Illinois Limits Religious Objections to COVID Prevention Measures

Late on October 28, 2021, the Illinois legislature took steps to severely limit challenges to COVID-19 prevention measures. The legislature amended the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, 745 ILCS 70/1 et seq. (the "Act"), to prohibit the Act from being used as a tool to challenge COVID-19 prevention measures implemented by any person or entity. The Act allows an action for treble damages to those who are discriminated against on account of their refusal to accept or participate in medical treatment. The new amendments clarify that no action will be allowed when the refusal to accept treatment involves steps taken to reduce the risk of COVID transmission. The full text of the amendment may be found here.

The Act was originally passed in response to Roe v. Wade, with the intention of protecting health care workers from having to participate in abortions or other procedures that offended their religious principles. The Act was broadly phrased to include not only religious objections, but also conscientious objections that are part of a "set of moral convictions that … arises from a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by God among adherents of religious faiths." The Act prohibits discrimination of any kind by any person on account of a person’s refusal to participate in delivering or accepting medical services based on a conscientious objection. Recent cases had held that the anti-discrimination ban was absolute and not subject to the concepts of "reasonable accommodation" or "undue hardship" that apply to claims of disability or religious discrimination. Thus, an employee refusing to comply with a mandatory vaccination policy based on a claim of religious belief could argue that any effort by the employer to limit their activity (social distancing) or take other precautions (masking/testing) due to their unvaccinated status was unlawful discrimination under the Act without regard to whether the lack of compliance constituted an undue risk to others, or the additional restrictions were reasonable.      

With the recent amendments, challenges to COVID-19 prevention measures will no longer be permissible under the Act but will now have to be brought under federal laws such as Title VII or the ADA, or the Illinois Human Rights Act. While these laws prohibit religious and disability discrimination in employment and in places of public accommodation/education, proving a violation is much more difficult than it would have been under the Act. Thus, employers will still need to carefully weigh requests for religious or medical exemption from COVID-19 prevention measures but can reject those requests which result in undue burdens or unreasonable accommodations. 

It is widely expected the Governor will quickly sign the Act and the amendment will become immediately effective. 

© 2022 Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone PLC National Law Review, Volume XI, Number 302
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About this Author

Barry P. Kaltenbach Principal Miller Canfield Chicago Commercial Disputes Litigation
Principal

Barry Kaltenbach has handled commercial disputes in state and federal courts from coast to coast for the past twenty years, while always trying to keep his clients out of court.

His practice currently spans a wide range of civil matters. In the last few years, he has successfully established ownership of over $1 billion in tax attributes in federal court on the east coast and defended against customer solicitation and misappropriation of trade secret claims on the west coast. He also regularly represents financial institutions in workouts and commercial foreclosures; employers and...

312-460-4251
Robert T. Zielinski Labor & Employment Attorney Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone Chicago, IL
Principal

Robert T. Zielinski provides creative and effective representation and advice in resolving the multitude of issues that arise in today’s complex employment relationships.

This includes, but is not limited to, union organizing, negotiations and arbitrations; litigation of individual or class employment claims over discrimination, wages, benefits and so forth; and proactive advice on managing situations to avoid post-decision disputes.

312-460-4216
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