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In Syosset nurses' lawsuit, judge refuses to suspend state's COVID vaccine mandate

A federal judge considering a lawsuit filed by

A federal judge considering a lawsuit filed by two Syosset Hospital nurses refused to issue an injunction against the state's vaccine mandate for health care workers. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A federal judge on Sunday refused to suspend New York State’s coronavirus-vaccine mandate for health care workers, according to court records of a First Amendment lawsuit filed by two Syosset nurses who object to the shots on religious-freedom grounds.

Attorneys for the nurses — Diane Bono of Seaford and Michelle Melendez of Wheatley Heights, who both work at Syosset Hospital, plus a third plaintiff, a worker at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse — had sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the mandate, which goes into effect on Sept. 27. It requires all health care workers in the state, as a condition of employment, to have gotten at least one dose.

On Sunday, the judge, William F. Kuntz II of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, denied the plaintiffs’ motion, according to the court records, which do not contain a copy of his order. The court had been asked to temporarily block the mandate while the case makes its way through court.

Norman Pattis, a New Haven, Connecticut, lawyer representing the plaintiffs, who include a Connecticut-based advocacy group called We The Patriots USA Inc., didn’t immediately return a message on Sunday afternoon seeking comment, nor did Melendez and Bono. Neither did the state immediately return a message seeking comment.

The court's district executive, Eugene J. Corcoran, said Sunday night that the plaintiffs have indicated they are appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Melendez is Roman Catholic, Bono is a nondenominational Christian, and the Syracuse plaintiff, Michelle Synakowski, is also Roman Catholic, according to the lawsuit. No working telephone number for Synakowski could be found.

The plaintiffs, citing the U.S. Constitution’s First, Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments and rights to privacy and medical freedom, object on religious grounds and because the development of the three vaccines authorized in the United States in some way involved stem cells, which for years have been the subject of controversy, particularly among religious groups.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed using clones of stem cell lines that had been created decades ago using fetal tissue. While the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines don’t contain clones of stem cells, the lab tests to confirm those vaccines’ effectiveness were developed using stem cell lines.

Religious bodies, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have said it’s morally acceptable to get the Pfizer and Moderna shots, and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, which covers Long Island, advises its parishioners to get the Pfizer or Moderna shots, rather than Johnson & Johnson, if they have a choice. Pope Francis has said getting the vaccines is an "act of love," urging vaccination, as have certain other Christian leaders, including some who are opposed to abortion.

But, Melendez, one of the Syosset nurses, has told Newsday: "These are my deeply held and sincere personal religious beliefs. I’m not necessarily following the word of the pope or the Diocese of Rockville Centre. All three vaccines either in their research and development or production and manufacturing use fetal cell lines."

In mid-August, then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office said the state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers would include a religious-grounds exemption. But on Aug. 26, a state panel, under Gov. Kathy Hochul, voted unanimously against such an exemption.

The case, filed Sept. 2 in Brooklyn, is We The Patriots USA, Inc. et al v. Hochul et al.

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