The group behind the very public fight in Lancaster County over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate implemented by the University of Pennsylvania Health System has filed a lawsuit.
The health system includes Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, which announced the requirement for its employees in mid-May.
Filed by Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates (PICA) in the U.S. District for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the suit alleges the mandate violates employees First Amendment rights to free speech and is seeking damages.
“I don’t believe anybody has raised the political speech argument before,” Bruce L. Castor, the attorney representing PICA, told LNP | LancasterOnline Tuesday.
Castor added, “The issue of compelling vaccination has become a politicized issue.”
Castor — a retired Republican politician — has served in a litany of positions that include Montgomery District Attorney, Pennsylvania’s first Solicitor General and Acting Pennsylvania Attorney General. Earlier this year he also worked with the defense team in the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
John Lines, an LG Health spokesperson, could not be immediately reached for comment.
The new employee vaccination policy was announced in May and went into effect on Sept. 1 across all Penn Medicine hospitals.
PICA, which sprung into existence in response to the mandate, has worked with another grassroots organization opposed to COVID-19 mitigation strategies, FreePA, to hold protests and collect signatures in opposition to the policy.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System — which, in addition to Lancaster General Hospital, has five hospitals in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — was the first in the state to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations.
President Joe Biden has since announced a requirement, which is still in the process of being implemented nationally, for all health care workers.
Only WellSpan Health, which operates WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital, and LG Health have staff vaccine mandates in place in Lancaster County.
Mandates appear to work.
At the time of the May announcement, roughly 66% of LGH’s more than 9,700 employees were fully vaccinated. Just before the Sept. 1 deadline the percentage of vaccinated and exempt employees was greater than 94%.
Roughly 2% of the 38,000 personnel employed by the Penn Medicine health system — including LG Health staff — have received a religious or medical exemption to the health system's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
The health system has declined to say — unlike other hospitals that have terminated noncompliant staff — how many unvaccinated employees were fired.
Castor said he was uncertain how many employees were negatively impacted by the mandate, but that he was representing “dozens.”
Under the new mandate, employees could have sought a medical or religious exemption, similar to the health system’s flu vaccine policy.
“This civil action arises out of the Defendants’ flagrant disregard for the constitutional rights of American citizens in their attempt to compel vaccinations,” the suit says.
“Through the actions of Defendants’ and other non-party individuals and entities, vaccines have been politicized to a point where receiving or declining a vaccine has become a political act in the eyes of the public, and being compelled into discussing one’s vaccine status is compelling that person to engage in political speech.”
Employees in New Mexico, California and Texas have filed similar lawsuits — with little success — challenging COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
Castor said Tuesday he believed others might follow his free speech argument.
“The politicization of this issue has made it such that people who choose not to be vaccinated are considered to be political right-wing extremists,” Castor said. “If we’re going to ‘follow the science’ we should not punish people for expressing their beliefs.”