Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group, announced that a settlement it called historic has been reached with an Illinois hospital system over denying its employees a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The NorthShore University HealthSystem has agreed to pay out more than $10.3 million in a "historic, first-of-its-kind class-action settlement" against a private employer, the group said.

The settlement was filed July 29 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois' eastern division.

The Evanston-based health care system, which recently merged with Edward-Elmhurst Health, is the third largest health care delivery system in the state. It has nine hospitals and more than 300 local offices offering various clinical services; the merged system now stretches across six northeast Illinois counties.

The court must approve the settlement, the Chicago-based Liberty Counsel said in a statement.

"Employees of NorthShore who were denied religious exemptions will receive notice of the settlement," it said, "and will have an opportunity to comment, object, request to opt out or submit a claim form for payment out of the settlement fund, all in accordance with deadlines that will be set by the court."

More than 500 current and former health care workers "were unlawfully discriminated against and denied religious exemptions from the COVID shot mandate," the Liberty Counsel added. "Employers that unlawfully forced their employees to get the COVID jabs just got a massive wake-up call."

Those who have raised religious objections to being forced to get the COVID-19 vaccine say it is because an abortion-derived cell line was used during the research and/or development of the vaccines. The vaccines themselves do not contain aborted fetal cells.

The three vaccines approved for use in the U.S. -- Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson's Janssen –- all rely on abortion-derived cell lines, the first two in testing and the third throughout the development, testing and production stages.

In a December 2020 document, the U.S. Catholic bishops reiterated Catholic teaching on morally compromised vaccines, noting their use can be justified amid urgent health crises, a lack of available alternatives and their remote connection with the abortions from which their cell lines originated.

The bishops' document echoed the guidance issued by the Vatican's doctrinal congregation, which said in a note on the issue Dec. 21, 2020, that "all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion."

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control recommended use of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines over the Janssen one-shot vaccine because of concerns raised about side effects seen in some individuals who have received the latter shot.

In response to the settlement, the NorthShore health system said that along with changing how it considers religious exemptions, it will allow unvaccinated workers who were let go after they claimed a religious exemption to return.

"We continue to support systemwide, evidence-based vaccination requirements for everyone who works at NorthShore–Edward-Elmhurst Health and thank our team members for helping to keep our communities safe," the system said in a statement.

"The settlement reflects implementation of a new systemwide vaccine policy which will include accommodation for team members with approved exemptions, including former employees who are rehired," it added.