Federal court freezes enforcement of New York vaccine mandate's prohibition of religious exemptions

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A federal court has granted 17 medical workers' motion for a temporary restraining order against the governor and the state Department of Health regarding New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandate that excludes religious exemptions, according to court documents filed Sept. 14.

The temporary restraining order against the mandate does not take effect until Sept. 27.

The workers, including physicians, nurses, a medical technician and physician's liaison, filed a lawsuit Sept. 13 under pseudonyms in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. Workers accuse state officials of attempting to nullify protections for sincere religious beliefs granted under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They also allege the state's mandate violates the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution by subjecting people who have conscientious religious objections to the vaccine to losing their jobs.

"The vaccine mandate emerges in the context of an atmosphere of fear and irrationality in which the unvaccinated are threatened with being reduced to a caste of untouchables if they will not consent to being injected, even 'continuously,' with vaccines that violate their religious beliefs," the complaint said.

The governor's office provided Becker's with a statement Sept. 13, saying, "We do not comment on pending litigation." 

In a statement Sept. 14, the state Department of Health said: "Gov. [Kathy] Hochul is doing everything in her power to protect New Yorkers and combat the delta variant by increasing vaccine rates across the state. Requiring vaccination of healthcare workers is critical to this battle. This order does not suspend the vaccine mandate, but it temporarily bars the Department of Health from enforcing the mandate where individuals have claims for religious exemption. We are considering all of our legal options to keep our communities safe."

On Aug. 16, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a requirement that staff at hospitals, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities get their first COVID-19 vaccine dose by Sept. 27, with limited exceptions for workers with religious or medical reasons. The state's public health and health planning council, under Ms. Hochul, subsequently approved emergency regulations Aug. 26, which supersede the previously announced requirement and exclude religious exemptions.

The healthcare workers seek a preliminary injunction — and ultimately a permanent and final injunction — against the vaccine mandate's prohibition of religious exemptions.

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