TEMPORARILY, Religious Exemptions Allowed for Vaccine Mandate

This issue is developing and we will continue reporting as more information becomes available.

HCP learned today that a federal district judge in Utica NY signed a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) which temporarily allows COVID-19 vaccine exemptions on religious grounds for health care workers.

The TRO suspends enforcement of the vaccine mandate for health care workers who legitimately request exemption due to their sincerely held religious beliefs. Involved parties must file all briefs (including any opposition to the TRO) by September 22, and oral arguments will take place on Tuesday, September 28. At that time, the temporary injunction may be made permanent.

Until decided in the court, New York State employers may not impose any consequences on workers who refuse vaccination on religious grounds. Likewise, the NYS Department of Health (DOH/the Department) may not take any vaccine mandate-related disciplinary action against health care workers or their employers when religious exemptions to vaccine mandates are in place.

Note that employers must “walk-back” any actions that may have already been taken against vaccine refusers who sought religious exemption but were denied based on the rule adopted on August 26, 2021.

The health care workers behind the injunction, who are not being named publicly, argue that the recently enacted New York State COVID-19 vaccine mandate violates their religious rights under the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, these plaintiffs purport that the mandate is in violation of the anti-discrimination requirements of Title VII.

The religious objection to COVID-19 vaccination has been undercut by the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis has called COVID-19 immunization an “act of love”.

The law suit seeking the TRO was filed by the Thomas Moore Society, a conservative legal group. The TRO was signed today, September 14, 2021 by U.S. District Judge David N. Hurd. The TRO names the following defendants in the capacity of their official duties: Kathy Hochul, Governor of NYS; Dr. Howard Zucker, NYS Commissioner of Health; and Letitia James, NYS Attorney General. 

Of historical relevance is that the Supreme Court has ruled that vaccine mandates are legal and constitutional. The question was decided over 100 years ago in the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts (in 1905).

Still no DOH Guidance on Vaccine Mandate

We are now about halfway to the October 7 deadline for home care worker vaccinations, and the Department has yet to issue the promised Dear Administrator Letter (DAL) and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) to guide vaccination mandate policies for HCP provider members. Your Public Policy team continues to communicate with DOH, and will inform members as soon as we learn more.