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New York must allow religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines, judge rules

Vaccine Protest
A small group of anti-vaccination protesters gather outside of New York-Presbyterian Hospital on September 01, 2021 in New York City. Following a mandate from former Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring all hospital staff to be vaccinated, hundreds of hospital workers across the state have been protesting against the measure. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) |

A federal judge on Tuesday granted a preliminary injunction against New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers after a group of 17 Christian medical professionals, including doctors and nurses, protested in a lawsuit that the mandate violated their religious freedom by not allowing employers to consider religious exemptions.

U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd issued a new order blocking the New York health department from rejecting employer-approved religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate enacted on Aug. 26. It comes as a similar order issued in September was set to expire. 

"The question presented by this case is not whether plaintiffs and other individuals are entitled to a religious exemption from the State's workplace vaccination requirement," Hurd wrote in his ruling. "Instead, the question is whether the State's summary imposition of § 2.61 conflicts with plaintiffs' and other individuals' federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers." 

"The answer to this question is clearly yes," the Bill Clinton appointee continued. "Plaintiffs have established that § 2.61 conflicts with longstanding federal protections for religious beliefs and that they and others will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief."

The vaccine mandate dictated that more than 600,000 workers in public and private hospitals and nursing homes throughout the state receive their first dose of a vaccine by midnight Sept. 26 to continue working the following day.

On Sept. 14, Hurd issued an order to temporarily prevent New York's health department from rejecting employer-approved religious exemptions. The order was extended on Sept. 20 until Oct. 12, when Hurd made his decision.

In their lawsuit, the Christian medical workers, represented by religious liberty advocate group Thomas More Society, argued that the state allows a medical exemption and should also consider religious exemption requests.

"With this decision the court rightly recognized that yesterday's 'front line heroes' in dealing with COVID cannot suddenly be treated as disease-carrying villains and kicked to the curb by the command of a state health bureaucracy," Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara, the lead counsel in the case, said in a statement.

"Some of these plaintiffs contracted COVID while treating patients, recovered, and were allowed to return to work with the same protective measures that were good enough for the 18 months that they were the heroes in the battle against the virus. There is no 'science' to show that these same measures are suddenly inadequate – especially when they are allowed for those with medical exemptions."

The preliminary injunction prohibits New York's Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul and any agencies or persons under her authority from "enforcing, threatening to enforce, attempting to enforce, or otherwise requiring compliance" with the COVID vaccine mandate.

The state is also forbidden from taking "any action, disciplinary or otherwise, against the licensure, certification, residency, admitting privileges or other professional status or qualification" of medical professionals that seek or obtain a religious exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.

"These plaintiffs are not anti-vaxxers," Stephen Crampton, Thomas More Society senior counsel, said.

The plaintiffs, who oppose abortion under any circumstances, object to taking the vaccines because "they all employ fetal cell lines derived from procured abortion in testing, development or production."

The ruling comes after Hochul told a Brooklyn megachurch last month that vaccines against COVID-19 are God's answer to "our prayers." She vowed to appeal the injunction.

"My responsibility as Governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that," the governor said in a statement reacting to the injunction. "I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe."

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