New York legal experts weigh in on religious vaccine exemptions

COVID-19

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled that religious vaccine exemptions can stay in place for New York health care workers while the issue is still progressing through the legal system. What does this ruling mean for those health care workers?

Steven Modica, a labor and employment law attorney in New York, explained the ruling from the judge: “The court concluded that it would be illegal to have to prohibit health care workers from having the opportunity for a religious exemption. It does not mean that religious exemptions have to be granted, it’s still done pretty much on a case-by-case basis, but the law says that it is illegal to not at least give folks the opportunity to pursue that,” Modica said.

Modica said this ruling doesn’t mean any health care workers who request to be exempt from the state’s vaccine mandate, will be granted it. They have to have a sincerely held religious belief. “As a lawyer in this community I’ve received many, many phone calls from folks who said, ‘You know, I just don’t want the vaccine. And then, I’ll ask them, ‘Is there a religious exemption or medical exemption?'” He said. “Rarely are they able to articulate in any meaningful way what that is, or why they believe that that’s justifiable.”

Experts also say for those who do request a religious exemption, employers have the right to look critically at them. “The employer is allowed to inquire within reason. There’s really no guidance on how far they can push it. But if you don’t have a real history of being involved in your religion, and you are maybe posting some political things on social media about the vaccine, you should expect to have your beliefs questioned,” said Leslie Silva, a Partner with Tully Rinckey PLLC.

Silva also said employers could look at things like past vaccinations to decide whether you can be exempt. “If you have been vaccinated for Chickenpox or Rubella or Hepatitis A, then you are going to struggle in making that religious exemption for the COVID vaccine because they’re manufactured pretty similarly with this mRNA, and the fetal cells and all that,” Silva said. 

Experts also say an employer could deny a religious exemption request if it would create an undue burden for them. “If it would diminish the efficiency of the jobs that other folks have to do in the workplace, if it would arguably increase or make worker safety worse, if it would theoretically infringe on the rights of other people in the workplace,” Modica explained. “Those are all factors.”

Tuesday’s ruling came after anonymous plaintiffs filed the lawsuit against New York. Those plantiffs said they are Christians and are opposed to the vaccine on moral grounds. However, leaders in the Catholic Church have said it’s actually morally acceptable to get the vaccine. Pope Francis said getting the shot was an “act of love.”

So why are some still reluctant? Silva says it varies from person to person. “Just because a majority of the Christians or the Catholics follow Pope Francis doesn’t necessarily mean that they all do, and that what he said is going to be acknowledged by all of them. Just like our laws are not blanket laws for all folks, it goes the same across religion,” Silva said. 

Silva said she’s heard numerous different reasons people don’t want to get the vaccine based on religious beliefs, but she says it varies from person to person. “Some of them I had never heard before and I just said, ‘Okay, that’s obviously your sincerely held belief, and you’re entitled to have that. The First Amendment gives you that right. Your employer has to accommodate so long as there’s not an undue hardship. And Judge Hurd apparently agrees you have the right to that religious freedom.”

While Tuesday’s ruling was big, it’s not the end of the litigation. Gov. Kathy Hochul responded to the ruling by saying she stands behind the mandate. Legal experts say the issue will likely now go to federal court to be heard.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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