(The Center Square) – Medical workers in New York seeking religious exemptions from the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate got a legal victory Tuesday when a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against state officials who sought to implement such a measure.
Seventeen health care workers filed the case in U.S. District Court for New York’s Northern District a month ago after the state revised its vaccine requirement for those in the health care industry.
On Aug. 18, then-New York Commissioner of Health Dr. Howard Zucker issued a vaccine mandate that included both medical and religious exceptions, an order that was similar to previous state orders during the pandemic. However, the state struck the religious exemption from the order the following week. That prompted the workers to go to court.
“This intentional change in language is the kind of ‘religious gerrymander’ that triggers heightened scrutiny,” U.S. District Judge David Hurd wrote in the Utica courthouse.
Hurd previously issued a temporary restraining order against the state. The new ruling extends that order while the plaintiff’s lawsuit against the state is in the federal court system.
Michael McHale, a lawyer with the Thomas More Society, told The Center Square that the injunction means Hurd determined the plaintiffs stood a strong chance of winning their case in the district court. The society is a Chicago-based nonprofit law firm that takes on cases involving religious liberty issues.
However, the state can seek to overturn it by appealing, which Hochul said she intends to do in a Tuesday statement.
“My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that,” she said. “I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe.”
The state’s revised order came just days after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its full approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for people ages 16 and older. Those who did not comply with the mandate risked losing their jobs in the industry.
New York officials pushed the mandate in an effort to help prevent the spread of the virus. While vaccinated people may still contract the virus, research has shown that those individuals have a far greater chance to not experience any major health issues as a result.
However, not all medical professionals, many of whom have served on the front lines of the pandemic for more than 18 months, agreed with the development of the vaccines. All three were either produced from or tested with fetal cell lines tied to abortions.
While Hurd laid it out very clearly that the state’s actions allowing medical exceptions but not accommodating religious ones violated their First Amendment rights, the judge also noted that his word will likely not be the last in the case.
“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,” he said.
The judge also indicated that while the plaintiffs demonstrated the state’s decision did keep them from seeking exemptions from their employers, it does not necessarily mean employers will have to honor those requests for exceptions.
Should any private employer in New York decide not to allow a religious accommodation, McHale added that it may lead to another court case.
“It’s certainly pretty clear to us that even under the judge’s constitutional analysis if a private employer is granting medical exceptions, it’s going to be difficult for them to get away with not granting religious accommodations,” McHale said.