Thousands of health workers in New York are basically as a federal judge considers whether the state’s vaccination mandate should meet requests for religious exemptions in a case that could guide similar policies in other states.
As written, New York’s vaccination mandate applies to all people working in hospitals and nursing homes, and does not allow health care professionals to opt out with weekly testing. Starting last week, people were forced to choose between getting the shot and keeping their jobs. There were provisions for medical exceptions, but not exceptions based on religious beliefs.
Thousands of health workers who refused vaccinations lost their jobs around the state when the mandate came into force, prompting hospitals to cancel optional surgeries and close operating rooms and outpatient clinics. Many nursing homes have stopped admitting new patients.
Workers filed several lawsuits last month to challenge the mandate before it took effect. Seventeen health professionals represented by the Thomas More Society, a legal group advocating for religious freedom, said it would be contrary to their religious beliefs to be forced to take the vaccine.
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On September 14, U.S. District Judge David Hurd in Utica, NY issued a restraining order preventing the state from sanctioning a facility that respected requests for religious exemption. Judge Hurd said he would rule on whether the temporary restraining order should be converted into an injunction by Oct. 12.
Several health professionals seeking religious exemptions from the vaccination mandate said they were Christians who believed their bodies were sacred and that they avoided medical intervention. Others, including the plaintiffs in the Utica case, said they were Christians who were against abortion and would not take available Covid-19 vaccines because they were developed using fetal tissue.
Fetal tissue-derived cell lines that were disrupted — often decades ago — are routinely used in medical research, including the development and production of the Covid-19 vaccines available in the United States. Fetal cell lines have also played a role in the development of vaccines against diseases including polio, chickenpox, hepatitis A and shingles.
A spokesman for the Roman Catholic bishops in New York said the Vatican has ruled that in the absence of ethically unapproachable Covid-19 vaccines, it is morally acceptable to receive the existing Covid-19 vaccines. The spokesman noted that Pope Francis had stated, “I think morally everyone should take the vaccine.”
The judge’s ruling did not restrict specific employers, and hospital systems have since taken different approaches. Some have fired people who sought a religious exemption, while others have kept them on the payroll, often with additional test requirements.
The state Department of Health said Wednesday that 7,019 hospital workers and 2,934 nursing home workers applied for non-medical exemptions from the mandate. A spokeswoman declined to comment further, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
A similar lawsuit in Rhode Island, which also does not allow religious exemptions from its vaccination mandate, is also awaiting. On September 30, U.S. District Judge Mary McElroy denied a request from several health care workers to prevent the state health department from forcing employers to deny religious exemptions.
New York’s mandate applies to more than 665,000 employees in hospitals and nursing homes. When it came into force on 27 September, 92% of staff at these facilities were vaccinated – and government data show that the vaccination rate among affected workers has risen faster than the general population since the mandate was announced in August.
Christopher Ferrara, a lawyer in the Thomas More Society, said the state would violate the First Amendment right to religious expression if it allowed a medical exemption, which he described as secular, without offering a similar religious exemption. He cited a Supreme Court ruling in April 2021 that temporarily barred pandemic-related restrictions on the size of religious gatherings at home in California.
Katherine Franke, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the California case is one of several recent Supreme Court rulings extending the protection of religious freedom, and she expects cases arising from state vaccine mandates to create a national precedent.
Franke said the cases call into question how best to balance different constitutional rights, and also highlight how the court has seen concerns about threats to public health as secondary to perceived threats to religious freedom.
State attorneys argued the mandate was in line with long-standing vaccination requirements for health professionals who do not allow religious exemptions. Vaccination is a critical tool used to combat the pandemic, and since 1905 federal courts have maintained vaccination requirements as necessary to promote public health, they said.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul has stuck to the mandate and announced Tuesday that employees at state facilities for the mentally ill and mentally handicapped will face a similar demand. She has also rejected claims made by people seeking a religious exemption, noting that Roman Catholic leaders in the state support vaccination.
“God answered our prayers. “He made the wisest men and women, the scientists, the doctors, the scientists – he got them to come up with a vaccine,” Hochul said on September 26 at the Christian Cultural Center, a church in Brooklyn.
Javan Galindez, a physiotherapist assistant at a Queens clinic run by Northwell Health, said he is a practicing Christian seeking natural remedies and exercise to stay healthy. He said his request for a religious exemption was denied by overseers citing the state mandate.
“Everything that has happened has left a bad taste in my mouth, and maybe it will make me go elsewhere,” he said, referring to other states.
A spokesman for Northwell said the system laid off 1,400 workers who refused to be vaccinated from a 77,000 workforce. She did not say how many had requested a religious exemption, but said each request was considered in a rigorous review process.
“Northwell has taken a rapid, aggressive approach to successfully moving towards full vaccination compliance, while maintaining continuity of care and ensuring that our high standard of patient safety is not compromised in any way,” the spokeswoman said.
Write to Jimmy Vielkind at Jimmy.Vielkind@wsj.com
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