Federal courts reach divergent outcomes in health care worker vaccine disputes while class action challenges federal mandate
A federal court in New York has halted enforcement of the state’s vaccine mandate (known as Section 2.61) against health care workers who have religious objections. Seventeen plaintiffs challenged the emergency order because it contains no mechanism for seeking a religious accommodation. The court ruled that approach “effectively foreclosed” access to rights that are guaranteed under federal law. Although the court agreed that the state has a compelling interest in requiring health care workers to be vaccinated, it found that the availability of medical exemptions undermined New York’s argument that religious exemptions must not be allowed. Here is an excerpt from the opinion:
Section 2.61’s regulatory impact statement claims that “[u]nvaccinated personnel in [healthcare] settings have an unacceptably high risk of both acquiring COVID-19 and transmitting the virus to colleagues and/or vulnerable patients or residents, exacerbating staffing shortages, and causing unacceptably high risk of complications.”
But as plaintiffs point out, the medical exemption that remains in the current iteration of the State’s vaccine mandate expressly accepts this “unacceptable” risk for a non-zero segment of healthcare workers.
[T]here is no adequate explanation from defendants about why the “reasonable accommodation” that must be extended to a medically exempt healthcare worker under § 2.61 could not similarly be extended to a healthcare worker with a sincere religious objection.
Meanwhile in Maine, a federal court upheld that state’s mandate for health care workers, despite the lack of religious exemption. There, the court emphasized that in contrast to New York’s mandate – which removed the religious exemption shortly before it went into effect – Maine’s removal of religious and philosophical objections was enacted by the legislature prior to the COVID-19 pandemic for purely health-related reasons and thus did not target. The court went on to reject the argument that the availability of medical exemptions requires the state to provide a religious accommodation.
The medical exemption at issue here was adopted to protect persons whose health may be jeopardized by receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. The exemption is rightly viewed as an essential facet of the vaccine’s core purpose of protecting the health of patients and healthcare workers…[I]t does not reflect a value judgment of prioritizing a purely secular interest… over religious interests.
As these cases suggest, the controversy over religious objections to COVID-19 vaccine mandates appears sure to continue expanding. A class action lawsuit recently filed in a Florida federal court, for example, challenges on First Amendment grounds the government’s rejection of religious accommodation requests by federal employees, federal civilian contractors, and military personnel that face a vaccine mandate.
Ideally, as BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman articulated in her recent column on this topic, we should protect both religious freedom and collective responsibility. Unfortunately, as she noted, the current climate surrounding religious objections is adding fuel to those who question the legitimacy of those claims for relief:
No major religions oppose vaccines; most encourage them as a way of caring for their adherents and their surrounding communities. But more than a few pastors and lawyers are making a business of assisting those who seek religious exemptions. Some provide counsel on how to present claims more likely to pass as resting on sincerely held religious beliefs. While a small number of such exemptions may be warranted, I agree with Curtis Chang, the former pastor and co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine, who noted in a recent New York Times op-ed: “The biggest threat to any legitimate right is the illegitimate abuse of that right.”
Read her whole column for more BJC perspective on this important controversy. And as religious accommodation cases involving vaccine mandates continue to wind through our courts, stay tuned for more updates.