UTICA, N.Y. (AP/WROC) — A federal judge ruled Tuesday that New York must continue to allow health care workers to seek exemptions from a statewide vaccine mandate on religious grounds as a lawsuit challenging the requirement proceeds.
Judge David Hurd in Utica had issued a temporary restraining order a month ago after 17 doctors, nurses, and other health professionals claimed in a lawsuit that their rights would be violated with a vaccine mandate that disallowed the exemptions.
Gov. Kathy Hochul said she will fight the decision in court “to keep New Yorkers safe.” In a prepared statement, she said, “My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that.” The state has not provided information on the total number of workers who have sought religious exemptions.
Hurd’s preliminary injunction Tuesday means New York will continue to be barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions. Hurd wrote that the health care workers challenging suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim. The question presented in this case, Hurd wrote, is whether the mandate “conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers. The answer to this question is clearly yes.”
Tuesday’s ruling says the state cannot take action against those who are religiously exempt:
“The Department of Health is barred from taking any action, disciplinary or otherwise, against the licensure, certification, residency, admitting privileges or other professional status or qualification of any of the plaintiffs on account of their seeking or having obtained a religious exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.”
The ruling adds that the NYSDOH cannot act against employers who accept religious exemptions, either.
“This is clearly just a ridiculous government overreach,” said Christopher Ferrara, the Thomas More Society special counsel who represented the plaintiffs. “You can’t do this to people. You can’t call them heroes one day and then throw them out on the sidewalk the next day.”
Seventeen health professionals filed the lawsuit against the state because the mandate did not include the option of a religious exemption. “Health care workers could still get medical exemptions, but not religious exemptions. Their arguments are that it goes against not only the constitution but also the New York State Human Rights Law,” attorney Melanie Franco said last month.
The anonymous plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Christians who say they oppose the COVID vaccine on moral grounds. However, Catholic Church leaders say it is morally acceptable to take vaccines against COVID. Franco says that when applying for a religious exemption, it’s not just about your belief but how your religious practice is affected.
For most health care workers, the vaccine mandate will remain in effect, as Tuesday’s ruling applies only to those seeking exemptions for religious purposes.
Hochul’s administration began requiring workers at hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated on September 27 and more recently expanded the requirement to include workers at assisted living homes, hospice care, treatment centers, and home health aides.
“My No. 1 job is to keep people in this state safe, and that’s why we were so serious about the health care vaccine mandate,” Hochul said in September. “It was the right thing to do. It was hard, but I stand by it.” According to the governor, the mandate led to higher vaccination rates among hospital staff across the state.
According to the judge, the ruling Tuesday has “nothing to do with how an individual employer should handle an individual employee’s religious objection to a workplace vaccination requirement. But they have everything to do with the proper division of federal and state power.” Hurd’s ruling adds: “Because the issues in dispute are of exceptional importance to the health and the religious freedoms of our citizens, an appeal may very well be appropriate.”
Hurd wrote that the health care workers challenging suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim. However, religious exemptions have been left out of previous vaccine mandates statewide.
An email was sent to the Hochul administration seeking comment. Take a look at the injunction below: