New York health system restores employee vaccination religious exemptions

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Syracuse, N.Y.-based St. Joseph's Health is giving back COVID-19 vaccination religious exemptions to workers after a federal court granted a temporary restraining order related to the state's vaccine mandate, according to a memo to staff from Leslie Paul Luke, the system's president and CEO. 

The system, part of Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health, rescinded religious exemptions when they were excluded from the state's mandate.

"While Trinity Health's vaccination requirement allowed an exemption for persons objecting to vaccination based on a sincerely held religious belief, the [state's] emergency regulation does not," Mr. Luke wrote in the Sept. 15 memo. "This meant Trinity Health could no longer grant religious exemptions to colleagues in our New York health ministries. Because of this, we had no choice but to let our NY colleagues who had been granted or applied for a religious exemption know it was no longer available."

A federal court on Sept. 14 decided to temporarily freeze enforcement the mandate's prohibition of religious exemptions as part of a case brought by 17 medical workers against the governor and the state Department of Health.

St. Joseph's Health said this allows the system to again include religious exemptions as part of its vaccine requirement policy. 

Nearly 100 employees whose applications were previously approved will have those exemptions restored, and system officials will review applications from those whose exemption requests were timely but pending determination or rejected based on the state mandate. 

Recently hired workers will have the opportunity to apply for a religious exemption, the system said.

"Recognizing that this may be a temporary order and that we have an obligation to follow the law, you can rest assured we remain fiercely committed to doing whatever is necessary to keep all colleagues and patients as safe as possible while still honoring the sacredness and dignity of every person," the memo from St. Joseph's Health stated. "This is a developing situation, so we will keep you informed as new information becomes available."

The 17 healthcare workers who filed the lawsuit against the state seek a preliminary injunction — and ultimately a permanent and final injunction — against the vaccine mandate's prohibition of religious exemptions.

The state Department of Health said Gov. Kathy Hochul "is doing everything in her power to protect New Yorkers and combat the delta variant," and the state is "considering all of our legal options to keep our communities safe."

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