NY gov. unfairly invoked God to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations, lawyer tells 2nd Circuit

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul speaks at the A.R. Bernard-led Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn on September 26, 2021. | Screenshot: Facebook/Christian Culture Center

An attorney for a conservative group argued in the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan Wednesday that New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has unfairly used God to encourage people to take COVID-19 vaccines as she argues there are no legitimate religious reasons to avoid taking them.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel partly granted a motion by We The Patriots USA attorney Cameron Lee Atkinson on behalf of three clients who stated religious objections to taking the COVID-19 vaccine to block the state from enforcing its vaccine mandate against them until their case is adjudicated.  

"This case is at least the second time in two years that a New York governor has made sincerely held religious beliefs the specific target of a pandemic," We The Patriots USA Atkinson argued in the court session.

On Aug. 26, New York implemented a COVID-19 vaccine mandate requiring some 600,000 healthcare workers to receive their first dose of an approved vaccine by this past Monday unless a medical exemption is granted.  

On Sept. 13, 17 Christian healthcare workers, including several doctors, filed a lawsuit seeking religious exemptions from the mandate. A day later, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against New York's health department from rejecting employer-approved religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate. A week later, the order was extended until Oct. 12, when a hearing is scheduled for the case.

While he did not provide any specific instances of the state violating the order, Atkinson argued that Gov. Hochul's recent public comments at the Brooklyn-based Christian Cultural Center on Sunday were encouraging some healthcare facilities to ignore the order.

"We are not through this pandemic. I wished we were, but I prayed a lot to God during this time, and you know what, God did answer our prayers," Hochul told congregants. "He made the smartest men and women, the scientists, the doctors, the researchers — He made them come up with a vaccine. That is from God to us, and we must say, thank you, God. Thank you."

She praised the congregants attending the church in person for being "the smart ones" and getting vaccinated but added that there were those "who aren't listening to God and what God wants," and she needed their help to reach the vaccine-hesitant population.

"Gov. Hochul has made public comments, public announcements that she would deploy the National Guard upon the termination of healthcare workers [who don't take the vaccines]," Atkinson argued in Wednesday's hearing, seeking a temporary order for his own clients. 

He explained that while his clients still had their jobs, two of them had already been told that they would be fired on a "rolling basis." He urged the court to issue another temporary order that would give him the "ability to go back to those employers and say, I have an order from the Second Circuit staying this regulation until they hear the appeal on the merits. Do not fire my clients."

The panel of three judges who heard the appeal said there were already three orders against the vaccine mandate and did not appear convinced that they needed to issue another one 12 days before the October 12 hearing.

Steven Wu, New York's deputy solicitor general, told the appeals court judges that the New York Department of Health "is in full compliance with the northern district's temporary restraining order."

When asked about the merits of the vaccine mandate allowing a medical exemption but not a religious one, Wu contended that the medical exemption was allowed because its scope is a lot narrower than a religious exemption and wasn't permanent.

"The scope of the medical exemptions is limited to those who have very serious contraindications to COVID-19 or to its components which are severe allergic reactions of a certain type. So just the sheer numbers of it ... are quite different than it would be for a religious exemption," Wu said.

While the judges appeared to accept that as a valid argument, they asked if there was empirical evidence to back up the claim, and Wu said that data would be presented on Oct. 12 in defense of the mandate.

He further pointed out that while religious exemptions are permanent, medical exemptions are only allowed for a limited period.

In his rebuttal, Atkinson insisted that his clients needed their own temporary restraining order against the mandate.

"The reason this court should issue such an injunction is my clients shouldn't be dependent on the outcome of other proceedings. They've gone to court, they've litigated their claims fairly," he argued. "They're on a ticking clock. As soon as that clock swings in the direction of the orders being lifted or being denied … my clients are left hung out to dry."

The 2nd Circuit granted Atkinson's motion in part on Thursday, issuing a temporary restraining order blocking the state from enforcing the "mandate against persons claiming religious exemptions." A hearing date is set for Oct. 14.

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