New York Health Workers Win Religious Exemption to Vaccine Mandate
(Bloomberg) -- New York state must temporarily allow exemptions from a mandate on Covid-19 vaccinations for health care workers with religious objections, a federal appeals court ruled, amid a spate of U.S. legal battles over vaccine and mask requirements.
The ruling, in a case filed by three workers who sued to block the state’s vaccine mandate outright, comes amid a national debate over mandates put in place to stem the spread of the coronavirus. President Joe Biden has ordered federal workers and contractors to be vaccinated and called for companies with more than 100 employees to require vaccines or weekly tests. Several legal challenges have been mounted against the mandates.
The New York health care workers said their faith prevents them from accepting any of the three major vaccines distributed in the U.S. because the drug companies behind them “relied on use of a fetal cell line harvested from aborted fetuses” in the 1970s and 1980s. They said abortion violates their religious principles.
A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Manhattan on Thursday granted their request to allow for religious objections while it considers whether the mandate as a whole is legal. The court denied their request for a broader limit on the mandate. It set Oct. 14 to hear arguments in the case, so the delay will be in effect for at least two weeks.
Lawsuits over vaccine mandates have left employers, workers and patrons guessing about the legal requirements that apply to them as courts consider whether to let the mandates go forward while the underlying question of whether they’re lawful is litigated.
New York has faced several legal challenges to mandates. On Monday the appeals court allowed a vaccine requirement for New York City school employees to go forward, lifting a temporary injunction it had imposed earlier to block it. Earlier on Thursday, the employees asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the city from enforcing the program, which goes into effect Oct. 1.
In a different case earlier this month, a judge in Utica, New York, ordered the state to temporarily hold off enforcing the health regulation because it lacks an exemption for those claiming religious objections. The temporary restraining order the appeals panel issued on Thursday lines up with the one issued by the judge.
The ruling in the three health care workers’ case came a day after the judges heard arguments on a temporary injunction.
“New York cannot target religion for special disabilities,” Cameron Atkinson, a lawyer for the three women and for We the Patriots USA, a nonprofit group, told the panel. Two of the women, who are nurses at a privately run hospital, were likely to be fired for refusing to get the shots, Atkinson said.
God and Vaccines
He cited statements by New York Governor Kathy Hochul at a Brooklyn church on Sunday. Hochul said “God wants you to get the vaccine,” Atkinson said. “It’s overt pressure on those employers to make these firings.”
Delaying the mandate “poses the risk of infection, complications, and death to the vulnerable population that they serve,” New York said in court papers. Courts have upheld vaccination requirements for more than a century, according to the state.
Steven Wu, a lawyer for the state, argued that the vaccine rule is neutral toward religion and no different from rules requiring health care workers to be inoculated against rubella and measles regardless of religious objections.
The case is We the Patriots USA Inc. v. Hochul, 12-02179, Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Manhattan).
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