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Supreme Court upholds NY vaccine mandate without religious exemption


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John Burger - published on 12/14/21

But Justice Gorsuch issues warning about violation of religious freedom.

The United States Supreme Court has now allowed COVID-19 vaccine mandates for health care workers to stand in two states with no possibility of a religious exemption. On Monday, the court refused to block a New York State mandate that does not allow practitioners an exemption based on conscience.

In October, the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling in a case involving health care workers in the state of Maine. 

The high court issued an unsigned order December 13 in Dr. A, et al. v Kathy Hochul, Governor of the State of New York, et al, which came to it on an emergency appeal. Three justices voiced their dissent to the decision, with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch penning a 14-page explanation.

Some 37,000 health care workers in New York are estimated to have left their jobs over the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The mandate also prohibits such workers from getting unemployment benefits.

“Thousands of New York health care workers face the loss of their jobs and eligibility for unemployment benefits,” Gorsuch wrote. “These applicants are not ‘anti-vaxxers’ who object to all vaccines. Instead, the applicants explain, they cannot receive a Covid-19 vaccine because their religion teaches them to oppose abortion in any form, and because each of the currently available vaccines has depended upon abortion-derived fetal cell lines in its production or testing.”

The doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers challenging the mandate in court argued that the availability of a medical exemption meant that the state was discriminating against religious practice.

But the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, whose decision the health care workers were appealing, wrote: “Faced with an especially contagious variant of the virus in the midst of a pandemic that has now claimed the lives of over 750,000 in the United States and some 55,000 in New York, the state decided as an emergency measure to require vaccination for all employees at health care facilities who might become infected and expose others to the virus, to the extent they can be safely vaccinated. This was a reasonable exercise of the state’s power to enact rules to protect the public health.”

Tough choice

In an emergency application to the Supreme Court, the health care workers said the requirement “imposes an unconscionable choice on New York health care workers: abandon their faith or lose their careers and their best means to provide for their families.”

Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s solicitor general, responded that the state did not allow a religious exemption for its longstanding requirements for measles and rubella. That exemption was taken away in mid-2019, just months before the outbreak of COVID-19. And while the state does permit a medical exemption, it is so “tightly constrained in both scope and duration” that very few people are eligible for it, she said.

Gorsuch argued that protecting religious freedom warranted a different approach.

Speaking of the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna, both of which were tested using a cell line derived from a human abortion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated: “In view of the gravity of the current pandemic and the lack of availability of alternative vaccines, the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.”

A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core and released December 9 said that most Americans are in favor of offering religious exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccines, according to Religion News Service. In addition, the survey found that more than half of those who refuse to get vaccinated say getting the shot goes against their personal faith.

In Rhode Island, a group of health care workers is also seeking relief from a federal judge from that state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers that does not have a religious exemption.

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