Two days after being sued by a Roman Catholic nun who provides free medical services to the poor, the District of Columbia seemed to capitulate on March 11 by granting the nun a religious exemption to the district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for health care workers. But Sister Deirdre Byrne’s attorney said on March 12 that the lawsuit isn’t going away—at least not for the time being—because the exemption may be revoked by the D.C. government at any time.
Byrne is a member and superior of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and a retired U.S. Army colonel who served overseas as a soldier and missionary. A medical doctor, she’s double board-certified in family medicine and general surgery.
Christopher Ferrara, special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a national public interest law firm that’s representing Byrne, said his client has a “deep and sincere religious opposition” to all three COVID-19 vaccines approved in the United States because “they have been tested, developed, or produced with cell lines derived from abortions, something to which Sister Deirdre has deep and sincere religious opposition.”
Byrne grabbed national attention when she delivered a pro-life address to the Republican National Convention on Aug. 26, 2020, describing the unborn as “the largest marginalized group in the world,” and President Donald Trump as “the most pro-life president this nation has ever had, defending life at all stages.”
“As a physician, I can say without hesitation: Life begins at conception. While what I have to say may be difficult for some to hear, I am saying it because I am not just pro-life, I am pro-eternal life. I want all of us to end up in heaven together someday.”
The 484-page legal complaint (pdf) in the case, Byrne v. Bowser, court file 1:22-cv-655, was filed on March 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The defendants are the District of Columbia, Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, and D.C. Department of Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt. Bowser and Nesbitt are being sued in their official capacities.
Before the religious exemption was suddenly approved March 11, it had been denied recently “after nearly six months of purported ‘consideration’ of her amply documented request … during which Sister Deirdre practiced medicine without need of vaccination and without objection by any of the hospitals and clinics that benefit from her unpaid volunteer medical services for those in need,” the legal complaint states.
Ferrara said the exemption letter the District’s lawyers provided him on March 11 is “unacceptable.”
“I mean, for what it’s worth, she’ll take it, but that’s not a solution,” Ferrara told The Epoch Times.
“It’s just a Band-Aid on a problem that has to be solved.”
Ferrara said the letter states that “the exemption is until Sept. 30, 2022, but it appears to say that they can rescind it at any time if, in the judgment of defendant Nesbitt, the director of D.C. Health, it would be in the best interests of public health.”
“So, Sister Deirdre, the Mother Teresa of the District of Columbia, who’s devoted herself to providing free medical care to the needy, including surgeries that can save their lives, is now living with the Sword of Damocles hanging over her head, wielded by defendant Nesbitt,” he said.
Ferrara was alluding to the late Mother Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, renowned for her work helping the poor. She was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta by Pope Francis in 2016.
This is a story about “a nun who gave up everything including a prestigious career in medicine, to become a religious sister who provides medical care, including life-preserving surgeries to the poor and the undocumented,” Ferrara said.
“This is a woman who could have made a million dollars a year easily. Now, she’s a nun in a habit.”
The suit is based upon the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 and the First Amendment, both of which protect Byrne’s “fundamental right to the free exercise of her religion,” said Ferrara.
Under the RFRA, the government has to have good reasons to burden religion, he said.
There is “no compelling interest” justifying D.C.’s vaccination mandate for health care workers “and even if there were, this law is not narrowly tailored, because instead of forcing people to be vaccinated, you could tell them to wear a mask, get tested every week—if you’re naturally immune, they can exempt you—which she is—she has T-cell immunity, confirmed by testing.”
T-cell immunity, which Byrne acquired from having and recovering from COVID-19, can be lifelong, Ferrara said.
“T-cells are much better than antibodies because T-cells are more adaptable. They remember what kinds of things have invaded the body and they attack them.”
The mandate is suspect because it is “not generally applicable” and “not neutral toward religion,” he said. “It’s on a case-by-case basis, using standards that are never specified anywhere … it’s basically a disguised system for individualized judgments on a case-by-case basis.”
The same federal court in D.C. has twice entered preliminary injunctions against Bowser for abusing her emergency powers during the pandemic, Ferrara said.
The first time was Oct. 9, 2020, when Judge Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee, blocked the mayor’s ban on indoor and outdoor church gatherings of 100 or more in Capitol Hill Baptist Church v. Bowser. The second time was March 25, 2021, when McFadden stayed a Bowser order that capped church attendance at 50 people in Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington v. Bowser.
The Epoch Times reached out to District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine for comment over the weekend but didn’t receive a reply by press time.