New York employers do not have to grant religious exemptions to the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate, but the option to seek a religious exemption must be offered, a federal judge indicated Oct. 12.
U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd issued a preliminary injunction against New York Gov. Kathy M. Hochul’s policy requiring vaccination for all health care workers in the state. The injunction came in response to a lawsuit filed by 17 unnamed health care workers who claim their religious liberties are violated by being forced to take a vaccine they oppose on religious grounds.
“The question presented by this case is not whether plaintiffs and other individuals are entitled to a religious exemption from the state’s workplace vaccination requirement,” the judge wrote. “Instead, the question is whether the state’s summary imposition … conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers. The answer to this question is clearly yes.”
“These conclusions have nothing to do with how an individual employer should handle an individual employee’s religious objection to a workplace vaccination requirement.”
However, having the right to seek such an exemption and being granted that exemption are two different things, the judge added. “These conclusions have nothing to do with how an individual employer should handle an individual employee’s religious objection to a workplace vaccination requirement. But they have everything to do with the proper division of federal and state power.”
President Joe Biden has issued a vaccine mandate for all the nation’s health care workers and federal employees and contractors. That federal mandate includes an option to request both medical and religious exemptions. Thus, the New York requirement in that way was more stringent than the federal requirement.
The temporary ruling in the New York case does not settle the matter, as the case still must move through the court system. The ruling does indicate the judge’s belief that the unvaccinated health care workers could win on the merits of their claim — to the extent that their claim seeks an opportunity to request a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.
According to legal filings, the plaintiffs oppose the COVID-19 vaccines because of a sincere religious belief that they “cannot consent to be inoculated … with vaccines that were tested, developed or produced with fetal cell lines derived from procured abortions.”
“These plaintiffs are not anti-vaxxers,” one of their attorneys, Stephen Crampton, said in a news release. Rather, he described their objection to the COVID-19 vaccine as rooted in its “abortion-connected research and development, something that these individuals’ deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs declare to be wrong.”
The possible relation of COVID-19 vaccines to cell lines obtained through abortion has been a controversial point even as the vaccines were being developed. However, even Pope Francis has said such concerns are not sufficient to deny use of the life-saving vaccines.
Multiple scientists and faith leaders of prominent stature have explained that the COVID vaccines currently in use in the United States are not derived from aborted fetal cells and that the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna should be clear-conscience choices for anyone concerned about entanglement with fetal cells.
Many mass-produced drugs in America are tested after development in petri dishes using the distant successors to a line of cells first obtained in the 1960s and 1970s from elective abortions. The Catholic Church has declared this historical connection to be so remote as to be negligible today.
Among some anti-vaxxers, the abortion argument remains front and center.
Nevertheless, among some anti-vaxxers, the abortion argument remains front and center.
How employers handle requests for religious exemptions varies, with some virtually rubber-stamping all such requests and others conducting more thorough research on a case-by-case basis.
Some employers require those who claim a religious exemption to the COVID vaccines to sign affidavits that they also oppose a list of other commonly used drugs that similarly were tested using long-ago-derived fetal cell lines. That list includes acetaminophen, albuterol, aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Tums, Lipitor, Senokot, Motrin, Maalox, Ex-Lax, Benadryl, Sudafed, Preparation H, Claritin, Prilosec, and Zoloft — as well as several other already mandated vaccines.
In Moffat County, Colo., the local Craig Daily Press reports that Memorial Regional Health has denied a number of applications for religious exemptions to the state and federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.
“Anybody who requested an exemption, medical or religious, had to complete documentation stating their request for exemption and why,” Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Riley told the publication. “Each exemption was reviewed independently.”
For religious exemptions, “there were some questions to answer,” Riley said. “They had to participate in an interactive process with H.R. and a panel with members both internal and external. That panel took into consideration responses from the individual to determine if in fact that request was truly, deeply held religious belief that prevented or prohibited them from getting the vaccine.”
For example, those seeking religious exemptions were asked if they routinely take other vaccines.
“We’ve never seen the number of requests we’ve had since this became a mandate.”
“People have always had the right to opt out of vaccine requirements based on medical or religious reasons,” Riley told the newspaper. “But we’ve never seen the number of requests we’ve had since this became a mandate. It’s not just us. Health care providers across the country are facing the same mandate, and they’re faced with the same number of requests. We took it seriously and followed a very consistent process.”
On the other hand, TV station King5 reported on a school district in Mukilteo, Wash., where nearly all requests for religious exemptions to a vaccine mandate were handed out. The district of 24 schools and 1,400 staff granted 97 of 100 requested exemptions, according to district communications director Diane Bradford.
One of the sticking points in the New York case is that the first iteration of a vaccine mandate for health care workers included an option to seek a religious exemption, but a second iteration of that mandate removed the religious exemption.
“This intentional change in language is the kind of ‘religious gerrymander’ that triggers heightened scrutiny,” Judge Hurd wrote.
The Chicago-based law firm representing the 17 New York health care workers hailed the temporary injunction as a victory.
“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,” said Christopher Ferrara of the Thomas More Society.
The Thomas More Society is a conservative organization working nationwide to advance free exercise of religion claims. It is the same firm that represented California pastor John MacArthur in his months-long battle with Los Angeles County over its prohibitions of large indoor gatherings. One of its most high-profile attorneys also served as counsel to former President Donald Trump and was part of his effort to claim the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Church ‘religious exemption’ letters against COVID vaccination mandates likely won’t work | Analysis by Mark Wingfield