New York is under no constitutional obligation to allow religious exemptions to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers, officials said this week in response to a lawsuit.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Attorney General Letitia James filed papers in US District Court late Wednesday in response to a federal lawsuit filed by 17 health care workers — the majority of them Catholic — who are opposing the vaccine mandate on religious grounds.
The push to force the state to allow religious exemptions would “gravely undermine” efforts to protect the public from the virus amid the pandemic, the officials argued in their response.
“The state’s efforts to promote widespread vaccination, especially of healthcare workers, in is the public interest and plaintiffs cannot reasonably argue otherwise,” the state’s response said.
“Reducing the number of unvaccinated personnel who can expose vulnerable patients to the potentially deadly disease in the healthcare setting is of utmost importance. Time is of the essence,” the state added. “As the fall and winter seasons approach, during which the weather becomes colder and people gather indoors, the likelihood of spread of the highly contagious Delta variant increases.”
Utica Judge David Hurd last week issued a temporary reprieve from the state’s mandate, which is set to go into effect next Monday, for health workers who claim a religious exemption.
The judge will decide by Oct. 12 whether to make the preliminary injunction more permanent.
The state argued there is nothing in the constitution that includes a religious exemption, saying: “For over a century, courts have upheld similar mandatory vaccination laws under the Free Exercise Clause and Equal Protection Clause.”
They added that health care workers refusing the vaccine under threat of losing their jobs doesn’t constitute “irreparable harm,” which is what they are claiming.
“Although Plaintiffs allege that they may face loss of employment or hospital admitting privileges if they do not receive the vaccine, these alleged consequences do not, as a matter of law, constitute ‘irreparable harm’ justifying the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction,” the state said.
“Even if Plaintiffs could establish a violation of their rights, which they cannot, their alleged harm, potential loss of employment, is wholly remediable by money damages and thus does not support preliminary injunctive relief.”
The plaintiffs are opposing the available vaccines on grounds that they all “employ aborted fetus cell lines in their testing, development, or production.”
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has said it’s OK for Catholics “to receive a vaccine that uses abortion-derived cell lines if there are no other available vaccines comparable in safety and efficacy with no connection to abortion.”
Pope Francis has also called getting vaccinated “an act of love.”