Federal judge bars New York governor and private employers from enforcing vaccine mandate on religious healthcare workers

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A federal judge has barred New York State from enforcing its vaccine mandate, granting a preliminary injunction to 17 medical health professionals who hold religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccines — even as a similar but larger suit brought by 1,500 healthcare workers against New York State is set to be heard in federal court next week.

Quick Facts

New York healthcare workers first filed suit on August 26 against New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, D, and other officials to block a vaccine mandate that required them to get the COVID-19 vaccination or be fired.

In that case, 17 healthcare professionals objected on religious grounds, citing the use of cell lines from aborted children in the development of the vaccine. Christopher Ferrara, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, which represents the plaintiffs, said that New York is trying to “slam shut an escape hatch from an unconstitutional vaccine mandate … They are doing this while knowing that many people have sincere religious objections to vaccines that were tested, developed, or produced with cell lines derived from aborted children.”

Judge Hurd agreed, writing, “The vaccine mandate is suspended,” adding that the New York State 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.”

At the expiration of the restraining order, Hurd issued a Decision and Order stopping the enforcement of the mandate. He ruled that the plaintiffs’ case had a high likelihood of succeeding based on violating their First Amendment freedom of religion.

The governor is also banned from “enforcing, threatening to enforce, attempting to enforce, or otherwise requiring compliance” with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Stephen Crampton, senior counsel with the Thomas More Society, 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. 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.”

The issue of putting healthcare jobs on the line over the vaccine are already having an impact. One New York hospital has put labor and delivery services on hold due to the number of staff who resigned over the hospital’s vaccine mandate. Gerald Cayer, CEO of the Lewis County Health System, said, “The number of resignations received leaves us no choice but to pause delivering babies at Lewis County General Hospital. It is my hope that the [New York State] Department of Health will work with us in pausing the service rather than closing the maternity department.”

This is a big win for religious liberty. As Judge Hurd stated, the New York State vaccine mandate discriminates against religious workers because it blatantly ignores both the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to entertain requests for religious accommodations and to “reasonably” accommodate those requests.

Judge Hurd’s clear ruling, along with his contention that the healthcare workers’ suit is likely to succeed on its merits, has the added benefit of coming just days before the October 19 hearing of another religious liberty accommodation case, this one brought by 1,500 doctors, nurses, therapists, and other healthcare workers against New York State and three major healthcare systems in a different federal district court.

Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which is representing these plaintiffs, stated: “We look forward to presenting this evidence in court on behalf of these health care employees who are being unlawfully bullied by private employers. All New York health care workers have the legal right to request reasonable accommodation for their sincerely held religious beliefs, and forcing COVID shots without any religious exemptions is unlawful.”

Judge Hurd’s decision in favor of the 17 Christian healthcare workers is heartening, but the judicial process as a whole is taking too long for some. Too many employees, faced with hard vaccination deadlines imposed by their employers or the government, have been forced already to resign their jobs rather than violate their religious beliefs — while others, with perhaps less support or fewer economic resources, have had to compromise their religious beliefs in order to keep their jobs and continue paying their bills.

Let’s pray that judges realize the Hobson’s choice that American workers are facing and act with urgency in upholding the Constitution and the individual right to religious liberty.