Judge again blocks New York medical worker vaccine mandate without religious exemption

AstraZeneca vaccine oasisamuel/Shutterstock

Medical workers in New York can seek religious exemptions from a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate while a lawsuit challenging the requirement advances, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Health care workers challenging the mandate have established that it “conflicts with longstanding federal protections for religious beliefs and that they and others will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief,” Judge David Hurd wrote in his Oct. 12 decision granting a preliminary injunction to prevent the state health department enforcing the mandate.

Then-governor Andrew Cuomo announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all medical workers in the state in August. The mandate covers staff at hospitals and long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, adult care facilities, and other care settings, and did not include a religious exemption. 

A group of 17 medical professionals claim the mandate violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Hurd wrote that the question presented by the case is whether the mandate “conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers,” adding that “the answer to this question is clearly yes.”

The judge wrote that “these conclusions have nothing to do with how an individual employer should handle an individual employee’s religious objection to a workplace vaccination requirement.”

In addition to granting the preliminary injunction, Hurd also allowed the plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously.

Stephen Crampton, Thomas More Society Senior Counsel, said, “This is very clearly a decision supporting the constitutional rights of these medical workers whose requests for religious exemption to the vaccine mandate were rejected by Governor Hochul and her administration.”

The legal group is representing the plaintiffs.

“New York seems to be dead set on ignoring the United States Constitution, its Amendments, and the Civil Rights Act. We are pleased that Judge Hurd has seen fit to put an immediate halt to that gubernatorial overreach.”

And Christopher Ferrara, the Thomas More Society’s lead counsel in the case, commented, “With this decision the court rightly recognized that yesterday’s ‘front line heroes’ in dealing with COVID cannot suddenly be treated as disease-carrying villains and kicked to the curb by the command of a state health bureaucracy. Some of these plaintiffs contracted COVID while treating patients, recovered, and were allowed to return to work with the same protective measures that were good enough for the 18 months that they were the heroes in the battle against the virus. There is no ‘science’ to show that these same measures are suddenly inadequate – especially when they are allowed for those with medical exemptions.”

New York Governor Kathy Hochul responded to the injunction, saying, “My responsibility … 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.”

Hurd had last month granted a temporary restraining order against the mandate.

Also on Oct. 12, a federal judge in Texas issued a temporary restraining order to keep United Airlines from putting unvaccinated employees who have requested exemption from its vaccine mandate on unpaid leave.

And a federal judge in New York City rejected a challenge from public school employees to a city mandate that they be vaccinated. The 10 employees had not met the city's religous exemption requirements, and the judge held that the mandate is neutral, and not discriminatory.

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