Vaccine case roundup: Mandates across country largely upheld in recent court decisions

by | Jun 6, 2022

A variety of religious liberty challenges related to vaccine mandates continue to work through courts across the country, and new challenges to COVID-19 vaccine requirements are still being filed. Below is a roundup of recent developments:

  •  The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the case of F.F. v. New York, a challenge to the state’s repeal of its religious exemption from school vaccination requirements. Parents in the case argued that the legislature’s removal of the religious exemption (which occurred during a measles outbreak and prior to the emergence of COVID-19) amounted to hostility toward religion in violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The Court’s action leaves in place the New York State Appellate Court’s 2021 ruling rejecting that argument. The repeal is neutral toward religion, the court found, and “relieves public school officials from the challenge of distinguishing sincere expressions of religious beliefs from those that may be fabricated.”
  • In California, via Religion Clause, a federal court rejected a religious liberty challenge to the University of California’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which, importantly, includes a religious exemption as well as medical and disability exemptions. The vaccination policy requires unvaccinated students, faculty, and staff to undergo testing and to wear masks indoors, a policy the court found to be neutral with respect to religion. The court found that the student plaintiffs failed to explain how masking and testing interfere with their religious practices. 
  • A federal court in Washington state upheld the state’s requirement that certain state employees must be vaccinated to maintain their employment. The mandate allows for a religious exemption, but plaintiffs, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Fulton, argued that the exemption process leaves the mandate not generally applicable to all, and thus subject to heightened judicial scrutiny. The court rejected that view and found that the mandate complies with the requirements of the First Amendment. 
  • In Nebraska, a federal court declined to issue an injunction that would have halted a requirement that members of the Air Force with religious objections must comply with the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Austin v. U.S. Navy Seals, lifting an injunction that would have prohibited the Navy from taking vaccine status into account in making deployment and assignment decisions, the court found that the Air Force has a compelling interest in “the health and readiness of its forces,” and that the process for considering religious exemptions is not “theater.” The decision is being appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. 
  • Meanwhile, a class action lawsuit has been filed in Texas against the military’s mandate by nine members of the Air Force with religious objections to the COVID-19 vaccine who complain that requests for religious accommodation are almost always denied.

Notably, all of the cases described above involve mandates that allow for religious exemptions, but they are nonetheless being challenged on religious liberty grounds for a variety of reasons. 

For more on the intersection of vaccine mandates and religious liberty, check out Season 3, episode 3 of BJC’s essential podcast, Respecting Religion. BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and Executive Director Amanda Tyler discuss the issue with clarity and detail. I highly recommend it!