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Ozaukee County nursing home sued over flu vaccine requirement

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OZAUKEE COUNTY, Wis. (CBS 58) -- The federal government is suing Ozaukee County over a flu-shot.

According to a recently filed lawsuit, staff at a county-owned facility pressured a nursing assistant to take the vaccine even though she said it was against her religious beliefs.

It happened at the Lasata Care Center which is a nursing home and rehab facility. According to the lawsuit, employees were required to get an annual flu shot. People could get exemptions - and that question of who qualified for exemptions and who didn't is a central question in the case.

The civil complaint lays out a timeline: on October 24, 2016 nursing assistant Barnell Williams told her superiors "...that she had a religious belief stemming from her interpretation of the bible that prohibited her from putting certain foreign substances, including vaccinations, in her body because it was a 'Holy Temple'."

According to the lawsuit, the administrator asked for a letter from a clergy member to verify the sincerity of her beliefs which Williams could not do because she had no affiliation with any church or religious organization. Federal prosecutors argue that policy amounts to discrimination.

But - in the moment - Williams did agree to get a flu shot. According to the lawsuit she "...cried uncontrollably up until the time she left the room." Afterword she "...suffered severe emotional distress... including withdrawing from work and her personal life, suffering from sleep problems, anxiety, and fear of 'Going to hell'"

She is asking for compensation for pain and suffering.

Another item of note - according to the lawsuit, the facility no longer requires letters from clergy people for an exemption.

The Ozaukee County administrator says that the requirement to have staff receive a flu vaccination is common in most skilled care settings and it's for the benefit of the residents of the nursing home.

The county plans to file a motion to dismiss the justice department lawsuit and they feel current case law will support that move.

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- The U.S. Justice Department is suing a Wisconsin nursing home because a former employee says she was forced to take a flu vaccine despite her religious beliefs.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges Barnell Williams "suffered severe emotional distress" because Lasata Care Center in Ozaukee County required her to be vaccinated or lose her job in October 2016. The lawsuit claims Williams feared she would be "going to Hell" because her interpretation of the Bible forbade her from putting certain substances in her body.

Messages to the county and nursing home administrator were not immediately returned.

Several states require hospital staff to be immunized and health care facilities also have their own policies, including allowing for religious exemptions. Lasata has such an exemption but requires a letter from a clergy leader. Williams couldn't provide one.

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