Kentucky woman who refused COVID vaccine sues hospital for violating religious freedom

Derik Holtmann/Derik Holtmann

An Olive Hill woman who was fired from her hospital job for not receiving a COVID-19 vaccine due to religious reasons is now suing her former employer in federal court.

Teffany Smith filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court against St. Claire Healthcare where she worked for two years as a certified lab assistant.

Smith claims in the lawsuit that St. Claire Healthcare violated her religious freedoms in their decision to deny her exemption to be vaccinated, and her termination was a result of non-compliance.

She is suing for two counts of violating KRS 344.040 of Religious Discrimination — Failure to Accommodate.

According to court documents, St. Claire Healthcare implemented a mandatory vaccination policy in August 2021. Employees were required in the mandate to receive their first COVID vaccine dose by September 15, 2021, and their second dose by Oct. 15, 2021.

Smith submitted a religious exemption form to her supervisors which cited several Biblical passages, and stated she did not believe “they have had enough time and do not fully know the short and long term side effects of the COVID-19 shot,” according to court documents.

As an alternative, Smith said she would do daily temperature checks and, if she was symptomatic, would take a COVID test before going to work.

Smith’s pastor, Joyce Stapleton of New Life Victory Church in Olive Hill, wrote a letter of support and stated the vaccination “violates laws put forth within us by a higher power at the time of conception.”

“The COVID-19 vaccination conflicts with scripture and our spiritual beliefs. Prayer has made us realize the responsibility God has bestowed on us as believers; furthermore, (Smith) is a member of our congregation and has the same beliefs and that belief is that this vaccine violates of freedom of religion,” the support letter stated. “We believe in healing and that is what our God provides.”

On Sept. 9, 2021, the hospital sent Smith a written letter denying her religious exemption request.

“Non-adherance to St. Claire’s Healthcare Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination policy will result in moving to an involuntary separation status,” the letter read.

On Sept. 15, the same day employees were required to have received their first dose of the vaccine, Smith received a letter of termination.

“Although you have a right not to be vaccinated, St. Claire Healthcare, as your employer and a healthcare facility has the choice to mandate the vaccination,” the letter stated.

“Since you have failed to comply with St. Claire Healthcare’s mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination policy, your employment will end September 15, 2021.”

The lawsuit alleges the hospital denied all religious exemptions submitted by employees. In addition, Smith alleges the hospital did not engage in a good-faith dialogue and consideration of proposed accommodations for not receiving the vaccine.

She is suing for payment of all economic damages, including back pay, front pay, compensatory and consequential damages, punitive damages, statutory damages, and attorney’s fees, costs and expenses.

St. Claire Healthcare officials did not respond to request for comment.