Court Upholds Right to Seek Religious Exemption to COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate


This morning, October 12, 2021, David N. Hurd, United States District Judge  for the Northern District of New York issued a preliminary injunction upholding workers’ rights to seek religious exemptions from the newly enacted COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

In short, until rescinded by any possible future appeal/s or final court decisions, NYS covered personnel in health care settings may continue to seek religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and employers may continue to grant them.

The court’s decision did point out that this preliminary injunction simply means that employers may entertain such requests. Employers may “reasonably” accommodate those requests absent a showing of undue hardship.

The plaintiffs filing the case argued that reasonable accommodations could be made that mimic the same accommodations allowed for those with medical exemptions (such as personal protective equipment, including appropriately fitted N95 masks).

HCP members are reminded that your organization’s policies and procedures must clearly indicate the handling of religious and medical exemptions to vaccine mandates. Be sure all involved staff are trained to properly execute those procedures.

This preliminary injunction prohibits the Department of Health (DOH/the Department) from disallowing the filing of religious exemption requests. Additionally, the Department may not interfere with the granting of religious exemptions, and may not take any action against those seeking such an exemption.

The written decision frequently cited the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the court stated:

“Although Title VII certainly does not require an employer in all cases to “accommodate” an employee by necessarily granting them an “exemption,” the statute does require employers to entertain requests for religious accommodations and to “reasonably” accommodate those requests absent a showing of undue hardship.”

In its conclusion, the court reiterates that “…these conclusions have nothing to do with how an individual employer should handle an individual employee’s religious objection to a workplace vaccination requirement.”

Neither the court nor DOH has provided any further guidance regarding the processing of religious exemptions.