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Catholic nun-physician sues D.C. government after being denied a religious exemption to COVID vaccine mandate


A pro-life Roman Catholic nun who is also a medical doctor has sued the District of Columbia over its COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare professionals after being unequivocally denied a religious exemption — prompting the question of whether anyone’s religious beliefs could possibly meet the government’s standards.

Quick Facts

As a sister in the Convent of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary and a licensed physician double board-certified in family medicine and general surgery, Deirdre Byrne has been providing frontline healthcare to poor and undocumented residents of D.C. for many years, including during the pandemic.

In 2021, the D.C. government mandated that all healthcare professionals must take the COVID vaccine in 2021. Sister Deirdre sought a religious exemption because, according to her attorney, Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara, all three vaccines approved for use in the United States “have been tested, developed, or produced with cell lines derived from abortions, something to which Sister Deirdre has deep and sincere religious opposition.”

The D.C. Health Department considered Sister Deirdre’s fully documented application for six months, and though officials have since conceded the sincerity of her religious objection, they nonetheless denied her request. The only justification for the denial that was cited in the unsigned draft letter sent via email was that granting her an exemption would cause an “undue hardship” for DC Health.

Without an exemption, she will no longer be allowed to treat patients or practice medicine within the city.

As a result, the Thomas More Society has filed a suit on her behalf in the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia, charging that Mayor Muriel Bowser, DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt, and the D.C. government itself violated Sister Deidre’s right to religious liberty under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 and the First Amendment.

The suit notes that DC Health does not employ Sister Deirdre and therefore, “as a matter of law” the agency “cannot suffer any ‘hardship’ from her volunteer medical services to private entities.” She currently works within a number of D.C. hospitals and clinics and none of those healthcare facilities have objected to her unvaccinated status nor barred her from working with their patients.

Sister Deirdre has also previously contracted and recovered from COVID-19 and “remains naturally immune to it, as confirmed by T-cell and antibody tests,” according to the suit. 

Mayor Bowser and her health officials have already been slapped down twice by the D.C. District Court for using their emergency powers to enforce COVID restrictions that unduly burdened religious worship in the cases of Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Bowser and Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser.

This lawsuit is asking the court to intervene once again — “this time to prevent a senseless bar on the practice of medicine by a religious sister who has devoted her career in the District to healing the sick who cannot afford quality medical care.”

If a nun who has made a vow to give up everything to serve Christ and the poor cannot receive a religious exemption, then who can?

Nobody, apparently. According to the lawsuit, DC Health hasn’t granted a single religious exemption to its COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare professionals. Sadly, this means that D.C. government officials not only have no respect for the religious liberty rights of its residents, they also have no understanding of the inviolability of religious belief.

The D.C. government had no problem with asking Sister Deirdre to work on the front lines and fight COVID among the poorest in the city during the first year of the pandemic when there were no vaccines, no approved treatment, and no understanding of the disease process or mortality rate. Still, without hesitation or concern for her own health, she successfully cared for hundreds of COVID patients.

Now when the pandemic is waning and it’s clear that the COVID-19 shots aren’t even effective at keeping the vaccinated from contracting or transmitting the virus, the D.C. government has no problem with denying Sister Deirdre her right to practice her religion and banning her from treating patients — a constitutional violation that will also have very real consequences for the very city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents.

Unfortunately, the D.C. government is hardly unique. The state of Maine has also failed to grant a single religious exemption to its healthcare workers and the Supreme Court also failed to protect their rights by refusing them a hearing. The result is that both government entities — by commission and by omission — have forced doctors and nurses to choose between following their religious beliefs and caring for their patients.

Except for two exemptions granted by the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense and the military services have also effectively engaged in blanket denials, rubber-stamping any and all applications and then vengefully punishing those who remain unvaccinated.

The Air Force, as an example, refused to grant a religious exemption to an active-duty chaplain. After the chaplain, a major, refused the subsequent order to take the shot against his religious beliefs, his superiors sent him a letter of reprimand, which will hurt his chances for promotion and, for all intents and purposes, end his military career. His attorney notes that these letters of reprimand are typically reserved for the most heinous of behaviors, including sexual harassment, cruelty and maltreatment, dereliction of duty, and making false official statements — not for exercising constitutional rights.

Where do our inalienable rights come from? Not from hereditary monarchs, not from Congress, not from the Supreme Court, not from generals, not from bureaucrats, and not even from local public health officials.

No, they come from God, and as codified in our Constitution, they cannot be infringed upon or denied. Somewhere along the way, American leaders and even some members of the U.S. Supreme Court seem to have forgotten that clear truth — and that is possibly the greatest threat to American’s ability to maintain their freedom.

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