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Judge backs health care workers seeking religious exemption to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

A health care worker administers a dose of

A health care worker administers a dose of the Moderna vaccine at Nassau Community College in Garden City in January. Credit: Bloomberg / Johnny Milano

Challengers of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s vaccine mandate for health care workers have a "likelihood of success" on First Amendment grounds, a federal judge said Tuesday, indefinitely extending his ruling that New York State must allow religious exceptions.

The preliminary injunction, issued by Judge David Hurd of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York in Utica, means the state will continue to be barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions.

The state's mandate "conflicts with long-standing federal protections for religious beliefs" held by the challengers, and "they and others will suffer irreparable harm" unless the injunction is put into place, the judge wrote.

His ruling does not suspend the mandate for other workers, and doesn't require that an application for a religious exception necessarily be granted.

Hochul said in a statement that her administration would challenge the ruling.

"My responsibility as Governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that. I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe," she said in a statement.

Hochul began requiring workers at hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated beginning Sept. 27 and more recently the requirement expanded to include workers at assisted-living homes, hospice care and treatment centers and home health aides.

Her administration — and many religious leaders — contend that there is no religious requirement against getting vaccinated. Pope Francis, for example, has encouraged people to get the shots.

But 17 doctors, nurses and other health professionals — who the judge ruled can proceed under pseudonyms — say in the lawsuit that their rights would be violated by a vaccine mandate that disallowed the religious exemption.

Last month, Hurd issued a temporary restraining order supporting them. On Tuesday, he issued the injunction and wrote that the health care workers suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim.

In similar cases, other judges have issued opposite rulings. A federal judge in Brooklyn last month refused to issue any suspension of the state's mandate.

In that case, which makes similar arguments to the one considered by Hurd, two Syosset Hospital nurses are objecting to the shots on religious-freedom grounds guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Tuesday's ruling doesn’t mean that health care workers who refuse the vaccine on religious grounds are guaranteed to keep their jobs, said Domenique Camacho Moran, a labor and employment attorney at Farrell Fritz in Uniondale. Employers, after evaluating a request for religious exemption, may find that no reasonable accommodation can be made, a possibility in a health care setting, Moran said.

"Having somebody who is unvaccinated in the hospital where there are sick people who may or may not be vaccinated and may or may not have COVID … that may be too much," she said. "The hospital may conclude that there is significant risk of substantial harm" and no accommodations can be made.

Religious leaders on Long Island generally are encouraging people to get the shots. The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island has ordered all its clergy, employees, staff members of the bishop's office and affiliated diocesan organizations to get vaccinated.

"It is clear to everyone paying attention that the only sure way to prevent the spread of the virus, and to ensure the pandemic’s end, is for everyone who is able to be vaccinated as soon as possible," the Right Rev. Lawrence C. Provenzano, bishop of the diocese, wrote in a letter to parishioners in August.

"At present, the spread of the virus, even amongst those who have been vaccinated, is due to the fact that almost 50% of the population is still unvaccinated," he wrote.

Sean Dolan, a spokesman for Long Island’s Roman Catholic diocese, said in a statement that the "Diocese of Rockville Centre strongly encourages all clergy, religious and laity to consider vaccination against the COVID-19 disease. Consent to receive a vaccine must always be fully informed and voluntary."

He added that "in considering vaccination against the COVID-19 disease, it is important to know that, although the available COVID-19 vaccines have a remote connection to abortion, the Catholic Church affirms that the use of these vaccines may be morally permissible under certain conditions. Therefore, we support one’s choice to receive a vaccine after careful consideration of the medical, moral and other personal implications."

With Victor Ocasio

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