Ascension, A Catholic Healthcare System, Denies Religious Liberty to Thousands

By: - November 1, 2021

Ascension is the country’s largest faith-based hospital system and the second-largest private hospital system by the number of hospitals. According to Becker’s hospital review in 2019, Ascension has 151 hospitals, 2600 facilities, and over 150,000 employees. Ascension was formed from Ascension Health in 2012, which became the largest Catholic healthcare system in the U.S. One would expect the largest faith-based healthcare system in America to value the First Amendment and the other American values of individual liberty and freedom. That is, unfortunately, not the case. Like so many different companies around the country, they’ve belittled liberty and put the founding documents in their rear-view mirror. That should not be a surprise for a company that prides itself on its ABIDE policy yet fails to mention religion in its non-discrimination policy. ABIDE, meaning Appreciation, Belongingness, Inclusivity, Diversity, Equity. It was inclusive of Ascension to deny 650 vaccine exemptions from one hospital in Michigan and only allowing a reported 2100 exemptions nationwide. Denying religious exemptions by the thousands says an awful lot about a Catholic-based hospital system when that is not the norm around the country.

What else does it say about a Catholic-based hospital system when both the archbishop for the military services, Timothy Broglio, and Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, disagree with the vaccine mandate and the vaccine? Archbishop Broglio reminded his congregation of the Catholic Church’s position about the “morally permissible” nature of the SARS-CoV-2 shots but went on to say, “that doesn’t preclude a person from forming a sincerely held religious belief to the contrary.” Furthermore, “Accordingly, no one should be forced to receive a COVID-19 vaccine if it would violate the sanctity of his or her conscience.” Bishop Schneider has gone so far as to provide affidavits to his Confraternity, which is “opposed to abortion-tainted vaccines as a deeply religious held belief.” The Bishop also quotes the Bible in December 2020 to the Catholic citizens of Illinois by reminding them of Mark 13:22, “The Lord said that in the end times even the elect will be seduced” when speaking of how the Catholic Church is justifying these jabs as policy based on the principle of material cooperation. It would appear that this Catholic-based healthcare system has become seduced with power in denying religious liberty to their employees. It does not appear that Ascension is following the Lord’s direction to the church in 1 Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

Ascension claims that “Our mission, vision, and values guide everything we do at Ascension.” Are those values forcing 80 nurses from Ascension St John Medical Center in Tulsa over the mandate and more to traveling positions due to dissatisfaction with the management? These more than 80 nurses leaving has led this level II trauma center to close five to seven floors, or potentially half the hospital. That is just the confirmed healthcare workers leaving, and it doesn’t include the reported thousands of religion exemption denials in one week from Ascension Oklahoma. If 80 nurses and at least five floors from one hospital weren’t enough, Advocate Hospital in Chicago has already shut down their operating rooms because of no anesthesia. Ascension Providence Rochester, just north of Detroit, is reportedly losing 20 OR staff, causing a reduction of functioning operating rooms to five and only opening them from five am to midnight. Rochester also reports closing the cardiovascular ICU and combining their staff with the med/surg ICU, leaving no qualified open heart staff after the mandate deadline. For perspective, rural county hospitals typically have two to four operating rooms, and major city hospitals have more than ten typically. Ascension St Mary’s in Saginaw, Michigan, has closed the entire med/surg floor and combined staff with the ortho floor in preparation for the looming deadline. In Indiana, Ascension St Vincent Fishers, Carmel, and Anderson will be combining their OR staff to keep one hospital’s operating rooms running and shutting down the Fishers location altogether. That includes their labor and delivery department, which is expected to deliver 600 babies this year. The three hospitals are losing more than 16 nurses and two techs in their L&D departments alone. Ascension St Vincent Indianapolis, a level I trauma center, brought in the National Guard to backfill staffing shortages at the end of September, more than six weeks before the mandate deadline. Ascension St Vincent Riverside in Jacksonville is losing twelve nurses on one ER shift, Ascension Sacred Heart in Pensacola is losing five certified nurse anesthetists, and Ascension St John Owasso in Oklahoma is losing four OR nurses as well. The special procedures department for the cancer center at Ascension Via Christi St Francis in Wichita, Kansas, just shut down after losing its entire staff due to the pending mandates. The hospital has also been on diversion because of a lack of staffing. Wichita’s staffing issues aren’t a singular issue. At least ten hospitals across Indianapolis were simultaneously on diversion earlier in the year for the same staffing issues. This shortage is nationwide. These are reports from only eleven hospitals from well over 100 that Ascension operates. That is approximately 150 employees across only 6% of their hospitals without even considering the plaintiffs filing suit against Ascension for discrimination.

The numbers of employees leaving Ascension due to the mandates will likely top 2500 based on these reported numbers. Because 2500 appears to be of no consequence to a company of 150,000 employees, lawsuits have been or are in the process of being filed in more than ten states.  Last week attorney Jeff Childers sent a six-page cease and desist demand to Ascension Sacred Heart on behalf of 700 employees in the state of Florida over the mandate, and this article claims 100 are plaintiffs in an upcoming lawsuit. This suit is one that Childers had to break apart from a national lawsuit to individual states due to the differing laws from state to state. The number of plaintiffs in Florida could be as many as 300 or more. Hundreds of plaintiffs in Indiana, Michigan, and Oklahoma are also being reported in pending cases. There are also pending cases in Illinois and Texas. Alabama, Kansas, and Wisconsin are also reportedly seeking representation and might have already started a lawsuit when this article is published. Tennessee has already had a case started against Ascension, which was filed at the beginning of October. That is at least 600 plaintiffs between three of the ten states with suits against Ascension.

One might ask, “Why is a faith-based hospital system denying religious exemptions?” and, “What about the denials constitutes discrimination?” Ascension has used nearly the same form letter in every denial across the system for all employees seeking exemption. Ascension used a global IT solutions company ServiceNow to process all of the exemption requests and claimed they reviewed each exemption on a case by case basis as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) directs in section 12-IV-B-1. The form letters employees received stated, “Due to the nature of your role working directly with patients, it would pose an undue hardship on the organization to grant your religious exemption request because the vaccine is the most effective means to mitigate the risk to patient and workplace safety.” It is quite interesting that they used the term “undue hardship” as that is directly out of the EEOC section 12-IV-B-2. Form letters go a long way to instill trust in Ascension’s workforce that their cases were reviewed on a case by case basis. The form letters only continued when associates filed discrimination cases with Human Resources and received emails stating, “Thank you for raising your concerns. As you can imagine, due to the past 18 months and the severity of illness we have seen in connection with COVID, we conducted a thorough discernment regarding the circumstances under which we are able to grant exemption to vaccine requirements. This discernment included ensuring we act in compliance with the law.” Ascension doesn’t understand that a form letter is not a case-by-case response to anything.

It also doesn’t instill any trust when Ascension HR refuses to answer why there was no name or signature to the denial and will not give a name or physician that reviewed the cases. This complaint only came up when employees found out that ServiceNow reviewed the cases without anyone giving HIPAA consent to their medical or other information being given out to a third party. No one in the administration or HR has answered why employees who don’t want the jab are at any more of a risk described by the EEOC as “affecting more than a De Minimis cost,” when many co-workers have had breakthrough cases requiring time off work. Breakthrough cases have been well established as common, so why does Ascension refuse to answer to that issue? Possibly the most glaring discrimination issue was the requirement for employees to fill out a questionnaire justifying their faith and sincerely held religious beliefs. That questionnaire ended with the requirement for associates to select “yes” to agree to voluntary resignation if their exemption was denied. If this isn’t coercion, then what is? Now employees are beginning to feel harassed when they receive automated texts to their personal phones claiming that “Ascension is committed to a safe environment…” and “A dose is reserved for you on (date).” It is easy to see that Ascension has no appearance of caring for their employees’ rights or the letter of the law.

It is just as easy to see an EEOC case when there was a religious discrimination case for the flu vaccines in the last decade against St Vincent Medical Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, for six healthcare workers, four of whom were in direct patient care. The judge ruled that since St Vincent accepted medical exemptions, religious exemptions couldn’t cause undue harm. Even if you look to other EEOC cases recently, masking was considered an approved alternative to vaccines. Everyone knows that the one place you will still find masks, without a doubt, is in the hospital. So, could this be about CMS reimbursement?

When looking at all that Ascension is doing, does this behavior surprise anyone when they hear that Ascension policy directs employees not to report adverse events from the shots? Let’s be clear here also, as a director in Indiana stated, “I was in a high-level meeting, at the national level, it looks like they’ve drawn a line in the sand and are not going to cross it.” It is corporate Ascension, not local hospitals driving these policies, though it is evident that some local executives are complicit. So many healthcare workers’ feelings about Ascension’s behavior can be summed up in one associate’s comments, “To our lovely government and the cowards in hospital administration: Thank you for turning a career I once loved into a burden full of regrets.” Most don’t believe the administration even cares as they are bought and paid for by the government and are refusing exemptions for the Medicare and Medicaid money the Biden administration is threatening to withhold. That is no surprise when the chief executive of Ascension made $13 million last year running a 501c3 business and $60 million over the last four years. It would appear that Ascension cares more about the money and pushing their weight around than their employees. A gynecologist about an hour north of Austin, Texas, is reporting that her boss explained that she would be terminated on November 12th despite Texas’ executive order because Ascension’s legal team believes it won’t hold up in court. Florida employees are reporting the same thing about Governor DeSantis’ executive order and push for legislation. Ascension legal most likely believes this because Ascension had representation on the ‘Covid task force.’ Many believe they have financial gains with the vaccine as legal couldn’t make that statement when this administration has threatened to make law but hasn’t yet. There is still no law requiring vaccination, only an OSHA draft to extend requirements from the federal workforce to the private sector, which is good because it would violate multiple constitutional amendments, as stated by multiple state attorney generals.

Although there were 650 exemptions denied in Ascension Providence in Novi, Michigan, and thousands more across the country, a few approvals have been received. At least one approval for an employee who requested to speak to legal and others who were completely teleworking. According to one manager, only 2100 exemptions for religion and medical combined were accepted across Ascension. That includes the extensions granted to some pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and those with a positive SARS-CoV-2 infection within the last 90 days. Ascension only changed its “natural immunity” stance after a month of exemption requests had been submitted. Although a minuscule amount of religious exemptions were approved, one would think that medical exemptions with physician’s notes to back them up would have been approved at a much greater amount. However, that would not be accurate either. Countless employees have come forward with emails of denials of their medical exemptions with physicians vouching for drug interactions, bleeding disorders, history of adverse reactions to vaccines, anaphylaxis, and even prior positive antibody tests greater than three months ago. Infuriating to those who were denied, some anaphylaxis medical exemptions were approved. Ascension even went a step further and required everyone with a prior lifetime influenza vaccine exemption to refile their exemption and promptly denied all of them, even the medical ones. Only this past week were some flu exemption denials starting to be reversed. It makes one wonder if the pressure being applied to Ascension is working. However, the way the denials took place and the high-level conversations going on led one supervisor to tell his employee that “If it isn’t from a religion they deem to exclude vaccines and if you or your children are vaccinated for other diseases, then (they) will most likely be denied.”

Whatever the reason is that Ascension has taken this hard-line; whether it be financial gain, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, or its multimillionaire executive not caring about his workforce, the results are the same. They’ve decided their Catholic-based company is more important than thousands of its employees’ religious beliefs and liberties. They’re willing to lose nurses when in 2020, the nurse shortage across the country was the worse it’s ever been. The number of nurses leaving the field doubled over the last ten years to 80,000, while new reports estimate that we’ll need another 1.2 million nurses across the country in the next eight years. While all this is going on, New York just laid off 72,000 healthcare workers in September, and Ascension, the second-largest private hospital system in the country, is preparing to lose thousands more. The demand is already so great that traveling labor and delivery techs are offered more than triple their normal rate at $75 an hour. According to ZipRecruiter, New York City is offering labor nurses $10,000 a week when New York’s average nursing salary is $71,000 a year. What’s worse is while Michigan pays an average of $65,000 a year for a nurse, Ascension is offering $312,000 for a year traveler contract. If it sticks to the current policy, Ascension won’t just be losing staff, shutting down hospitals, and paying traveling staff three times the normal rate; they’re also going to lose nursing students doing their clinical rotations at Ascension hospitals. Just as Ascension Sacred Heart in Panama City has lost its clinical visitation rights from one local nursing program.

Although it seems that Ascension is willing to roll the dice and risk losing thousands of seasoned healthcare workers and making the nursing shortage even larger, to the point they’d have to close hospitals due to lack of staffing, Ascension seems worried. Not only did they alter their requirement to allow for natural immunity considerations, requiring only one shot for a positive test within the last 90 days, but they instituted a new bonus and shift differential structure. Not one employee I’ve spoken to doesn’t believe that nearly tripling the bonuses and differentials wasn’t a way to retain employees. Their “nurses inspire nurses,” “commitment, courage, compassion,” and “hero” shirts weren’t enough for these healthcare workers to place their religious liberty second to their employer’s unlawful mandates. Their concern for how this is playing out doesn’t end there. Ascension’s lawyers have been in contact with the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the suits. They have requested a list of names and how many people are represented. One lawyer believes it is Ascension getting a handle on how big of an issue they have.

What Ascension is dealing with is over 500 years of employment history at an Ascension facility in Indiana alone. That is one of the 19 states with Ascension facilities and one of ten states with lawsuits against Ascension. That’s 500 years of employment history and as much as twice that in healthcare experience walking out the door on November 12th because the company who touted their Catholic-based business in their injection mandate email denied religious exemptions to thousands across the country. Ascension is aware of the nursing shortage and is willing to lose nursing student clinical rotations on top of the staff they’re ready to terminate. It is likely because they wanted better CMS reimbursement from Medicare to line the pocket of their $13 million salaried chief executive. A company’s willingness to do that isn’t noble, compassionate, or Catholic, let alone faith-based. It isn’t even American to deny religious liberty to thousands of Ascension employees. In-N-Out valued their employees and respected their rights enough to refuse the mandate, yet Ascension, with their current policies, respects the dollar more than their employees or their rights. Southwest employees stood up against tyrannical decisions by their employer, who then relented. That is exactly why so many Ascension associates are doing this by saying “NO” to the mandate, willing to be terminated, and filing suit. Hats off to those brave Americans across the country standing up for what is right, their religious liberty. These brave healthcare workers have chosen not to fade into the night, because silence in the face of tyranny is the most dangerous thing to our American freedoms. They have chosen to stand on their feet, rather than live on their knees.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” Ascension employees understand this, while chief executive Joseph Impicciche does not.