Federal appeals court allows New York COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers over religious exemption claims
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Federal appeals court allows New York COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers over religious exemption claims

The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a decision Friday vacating two lower court rulings that had allowed healthcare workers to claim religious exemptions to New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The decision also vacated an injunction from the Northern District of New York and a prior Second Circuit ruling on an Eastern District of New York case.

While the two lower court decisions originate from different jurisdictions, both pertain to healthcare workers’ concerns over the COVID-19 vaccine. Both suits were brought by New York healthcare workers against the Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, and Commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, Dr. Howard A. Zucker.

At the center of the lawsuits is the state-wide vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, known as New York State Health Regulation, Title 10, § 2.61. The mandate requires that all New York healthcare workers be fully vaccinated. Plaintiff healthcare workers filed for injunctive relief because the mandate only provided for medical exemptions, not religious.

Plaintiffs healthcare workers cited religious concerns over the fact that “the three major COVID-19 vaccines – Johnson & Johnson (Janssen), Pfizer, and Moderna – use cells artificially developed using fetal cells taken from aborted fetuses in the 1970s and the 1980s in their testing or manufacture.” Since the healthcare workers view abortion as a “moral evil,” they claim New York’s vaccine mandate violates their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.

As it currently stands New York healthcare workers who are not fully vaccinated will soon face termination. The two lawsuits underlying Friday’s decision sought to resolve the question of whether healthcare workers could claim a religious exemption as well as temporarily block the healthcare employees’ terminations. While the full opinion explaining the court’s decision is still forthcoming, the initial decision to vacate the court-issued injunction will likely mean that healthcare workers who cite religious beliefs as an exemption to the New York mandate can now be safely terminated.

The Second Circuit decision came down on the same day that the Supreme Court refused to grant Maine healthcare workers an emergency injunction against a vaccine mandate, denying workers’ religious objections. That decision suggests that any further appeal of Friday’s decision would be expected to result in a similar Supreme Court finding for New York healthcare workers.