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Lawsuit by Chicago workers challenging vaccine mandates heads to federal court today

Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune on

Published in News & Features

CHICAGO — A federal judge on Tuesday is scheduled to take up an emergency request by more than 100 Chicago firefighters and other city employees seeking a freeze on vaccine mandate orders by both Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court was the latest seeking court intervention to try to undo the city’s vaccination mandate, joining a more high-profile showdown led by Chicago Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara.

The 130 plaintiffs named in the federal suit, mostly Chicago firefighters and paramedics, are asking U.S. District Judge John Lee for a temporary restraining order that would halt the city’s requirement that all city workers report their vaccination status or risk being put on no-pay status.

The suit also challenges Pritzker’s statewide order requiring health care workers and certain other state employees to be fully vaccinated.

The 16-page lawsuit alleged that it’s unconstitutional for employees to stand to lose their jobs over their “deeply held beliefs that they should not take the COVID-19 vaccine.”

“In this case, plaintiffs have been given an unconstitutional and illegal ultimatum: violate their deeply held beliefs or be suspended and then terminated,” attorney Jonathan Lubin wrote in the 16-page suit. “They will suffer irreparable harm as a matter of law if this court does not intervene.”

Lawyers for the both the city and state, meanwhile, argued in separate filings Monday that the lawsuit has no legal merit and should be denied.

As city employees, the plaintiffs “undertook certain obligations” when choosing to enter public service, such as obeying dress codes and drug and ethics policies, and the city’s vaccination policy is “fundamentally no different,” wrote attorney Michael Warner of the city’s Law Department.

Warner wrote the plaintiffs have the same choice to make as anyone else whose employer adopts a lawful policy: “They can elect to comply with the policy, or they can seek other employment.”

 

A temporary restraining order is a high legal hurdle to clear under most circumstances, and recent case law suggests the bid for one here is a long shot at best.

Just two months ago, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld Indiana University’s requirement that on-campus students be vaccinated, writing that students who don’t like the policy are free to seek educational opportunities elsewhere. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an emergency appeal of that ruling.

The federal lawsuit is separate from on ongoing fight between the city and FOP in Cook County Circuit Court over the city’s vaccine order, which required all city employees to submit their vaccination status by Oct. 15. Those who are unvaccinated can instead undergo regular COVID-19 testing for the rest of the year.

The FOP has refused to cooperate, with Catanzara repeatedly urging members to disobey the city until a Cook County judge issued a temporary restraining order barring him from such public statements. That order was lifted Monday.

As of Monday, 23 Chicago police officers have been placed on no-pay status for refusing to comply with the city’s order. A week ago, that number that number stood at 21.

The number of police officers who have filled out the form has risen slightly over the past week, from 65% to 70% compliance. Police Superintendent David Brown has said many staffers are choosing to comply after speaking with higher-ups about how the mandate works.

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