A federal judge upstate sided with a group of healthcare workers Tuesday, allowing them to continue to seek exemptions from the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for religious reasons.
US District Judge David Hurd for New York’s Northern District in Utica granted a preliminary injunction on Oct. 12 against the state’s enforcement of the vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, ruling the requirement violated workplace accommodations guaranteed under federal law.
“The question is whether the State’s summary imposition of [the mandate] conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers,” wrote Hurd in his ruling. “The answer to this question is clearly yes.”
The decision extends a temporary restraining order by the court from Sept. 14, a day after a group of 17 healthcare workers filed a lawsuit against Governor Kathy Hochul, State Attorney General Letitia James, and outgoing Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.
Almost 10,000 healthcare workers have asked to get a religious exemption and more than 3,000 have gotten one for medical reasons, according to the latest state figures.
The plaintiffs took issue with the Department of Health’s Aug. 26 decision to require most healthcare workers get vaccinated within 30 days.
The DOH’s rule expanded on a previous Aug. 18 vaccine mandate, but the health agency eliminated an exemption for religious reasons, while still leaving medical exemptions intact.
Federal workplace protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act require most employers to “reasonably accommodate” religious beliefs — but the protections don’t guarantee an exemption from regulations like vaccine mandates.
Judge Hurd agreed with the healthcare workers that the Empire State’s vax mandate precluded hospitals and other healthcare employers from even considering giving religious exemptions, while not imposing that same restriction on medical exemptions.
“Defendants couldn’t show why the ‘reasonable accommodation’ that must be extended to medically exempt healthcare workers could not similarly be done for sincere religious objection,” the legal eagle wrote.
In a statement following the ruling, Hochul indicated the state will appeal Tuesday’s decision.
“My responsibility as Governor is to protect the people of this state, and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that,” the governor said. “I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe.”
As of Tuesday, 9,706 nursing home and hospital workers have asked for a religious exemption and 3,045 have received a medical exemption, according to DOH spokesperson Jill Montag, which amounts to about 1.5% and 0.5% respectively of the total workforce in those two sectors.
Vaccination rates among healthcare workers jumped to more than 90% for the first dose in the days before the mandate’s deadline on Sept. 27.