Will health care workers be able to keep religious exemptions? A judge decides Tuesday

Coronavirus

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — On Tuesday, hospitals all across the state could be losing more employees … or not.

A federal judge will decide if the state’s mandates excluding religious exemptions for the vaccine hold up in the Constitution.

It’s been a major topic of discussion among health care workers and hospitals. It started when 17 health care workers filed a lawsuit against the state, saying the mandate violated their rights. The plaintiffs are Christians who say they oppose the vaccine on moral grounds.

Judge David Hurd ordered a temporary restraining order on the mandate for those with religious exemption requests back in September. The plan is to go over arguments of both the state, and the plaintiffs, before making a ruling.

“If the state law violates the U.S. constitution then it’s unconstitutional, and it’s stricken,” said James Philippone, of Philippone Law Offices.

Philippone says it’s very possible the judge will rule the mandate unconstitutional, using the argument it interferes with religious freedom. But, there’s a lot of factors to consider. 

“There is one exception to this, it’s a case of public health, the question is, does protecting the health of the people of New York overrule the religious guarantee, if that religion is causing a mass infection?” he said.

He says another factor to consider: how will the mandate affect an already-existing staffing shortage in the industry? 

We took a look at one local hospital’s numbers to break down how much of their workforce could be at stake.

The University of Rochester Medical Center reports they had fewer than 300 resignations after the mandate went into effect in September.

Out of more than 20,000 employees, 96% of those have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, and 3% of those have been approved for exemptions while agreeing to weekly COVID testing.

URMC declined to comment further, but other hospital systems we’ve talked to, like UR Thompson, say there’s just not enough time to make up for resignations when they happen all at once.

News 8 spoke to one health care worker at Unity Hospital when the mandate first went into effect. Her plan was to not get the vaccine, and go to work until let go.

“I don’t want to be rushed into taking something,” said Krista Michael. “My initial hope was give it a couple years, I’d like to see how people who have taken it are doing physically in the next year, couple years.” 

Michael said her religious exemption was approved; the judge’s decision Tuesday holds her fate.

“I don’t plan to resign, I will go to work until they escort me out,” she said.

You may be wondering, what does it take to actually prove your sincere religious belief for an exemption?

News 8 got a hold of an exemption request form from the University of Rochester, it read in part:

“In your own words, please provide a written statement in the space below that outlines your genuine and
sincere religious belief contrary to the practice of immunization. The statement should specifically describe
the religious principles that guide your objection to vaccination and must include the underlined words
above. Documentation prepared by a third party to whose views you ascribe will not be acceptable. Please
indicate whether you are opposed to all vaccinations and if not, the religious basis that prohibits a particular
vaccination, such as the COVID-19 vaccine.

Health care workers can still file medical exemptions.

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