Federal judge: Religious vaccine exemption stays for New York health care workers

New York State

UTICA, N.Y. (WROC) — A federal judge in Utica has ruled in favor of religious exemptions to New York’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Hon. David Hurd granted the preliminary injunction Tuesday in the case brought forward by a group of health care workers who were seeking the religious exemption to the state’s vaccine mandate.

Last month Hurd ordered an extension to the court’s temporary restraining order that blocked the requirement for religious exemptions. Tuesday’s ruling says the state cannot take action against those who are religiously exempt:

“The Department of Health is barred from taking any action, disciplinary or otherwise, against the licensure, certification, residency, admitting privileges or other professional status or qualification of any of the plaintiffs on account of their seeking or having obtained a religious exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination,” Hurd said in his ruling.

The ruling adds that the NYSDOH cannot act against employers who accept religious exemptions either.

Seventeen health professionals filed the lawsuit against the state because the mandate did not include the option of a religious exemption.

“Health care workers could still get medical exemptions, but not religious exemptions. Their arguments are that it goes against not only the constitution but also the New York State Human Rights Law,” attorney Melanie Franco said last month.

The anonymous plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Christians who say they oppose the COVID vaccine on moral grounds. However, Catholic Church leaders say it is morally acceptable to take vaccines against COVID. And Franco says that, when applying for a religious exemption, it’s not just about your belief but how your religious practice is affected.

For most health care workers, the vaccine mandate will remain in effect, as Tuesday’s ruling applies only to those seeking exemptions for religious purposes.

The state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers went into effect late last month, despite the ongoing legal battle over religious exemptions still playing out in the courts. The requirement was more recently expanded to include workers at assisted living homes, hospice care, treatment centers and home health aides.

“As we know, the vast majority of health care workers are vaccinated, and we’re all thrilled about that” said Ann Marie Cook, President and CEO of Lifespan. “It’s the only way we’re going to beat this pandemic, but even a small percentage of people leaving health care or long term care right now has a huge impact because of the shortages. The workforce shortage issues are real and it’s impacting care; it really is at every level, or certainly impacting people’s ability to access care.”

As of late last month, University of Rochester Medical Center officials reported 96% of its more than 21,000 employees had received at least one dose of the vaccine, adding that 3% of its workforce had been approved for exemptions if hey agreed to undergo weekly testing. Fewer than 300 employees, roughly 1% of the URMC workforce, resigned once the state’s vaccine mandate took effect.

According to the governor, the mandate did lead to higher vaccination rates among hospital staff across the state.

A statement from Gov. Kathy Hochul in response to the ruling Tuesday said:

“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.”

According to the judge, the ruling Tuesday has “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.”

The judge added: “Because the issues in dispute are of exceptional importance to the health and the religious freedoms of our citizens, an appeal may very well be appropriate.

Hurd wrote that the health care workers challenging suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim.


Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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