Lawyers on limits of religious exemptions for vaccine mandates

New York News

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR) — Many New York attorneys agree that a recent court order to pause the state’s vaccine requirement for hospital workers will only apply to those who have legitimately claimed religious objections to the mandate. Everyone else is still expected to be vaccinated by the September 27 deadline, they say.

A federal judge in Utica ruled that the state not offering a religious exemption could violate civil rights laws. As attorneys for both sides of the issue prepare their arguments for a hearing on September 28, some hospital workers will get more time to get their vaccine.

Pope Francis encourages Catholics to get the vaccine, Jewish scholars say the Torah requires it. Muslim leaders endorse it, too, meaning that legitimate religious excuses for skipping the shot seem few and far between.

Employment attorney Laura Spring says, “The basis for a religious exemption would be if you have ‘sincerely held religious beliefs.'” The term “sincerely held” comes straight from equal opportunity employment law, referencing the Civil Rights Act.

People who claim religious beliefs as a reason not to get vaccinated need to prove it. Workers who apply for the exemption with their companies should expect their managers—or even the state—to verify their history of religious activities. They’ll be grilled about whether other vaccine requirements have previously been skipped for the same reason.

Spring says, “I think there’s always going to abuse situations, but I think the employer does have the ability to get more information that normally they wouldn’t.”

Medical doctor and health care attorney Andrew Knoll says the court’s temporary order is “part of there being due process in America, and delaying something a matter of weeks to sort it out is appropriate.”

When it comes to the legal challenge, Knoll says a similar issue was debated the past two years. During a 2019 measles outbreak, the State Legislature required students to get vaccinated without offering a religious exemption for the first time. The highest-ruling court did not stop the state.

Using that precedent, he suspects, the coronavirus challenge will fail, and the delay will end with the same result: a vaccine mandate for hospital workers.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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