Supreme Court Lets Stand New York’s Vaccine Mandate Without Religious Exemption

United States Supreme Court Building. (Library of Congress)

WASHINGTON (The Washington Post) — Over the objection of three justices, the Supreme Court on Thursday left in place New York’s coronavirus vaccine requirement for health-care workers that drew a challenge over its lack of a religious exemption.

The court’s order came on the final day of its term, as the justices also announced their final decisions and what additional cases they will review when the court reconvenes in October. The justices returned to lower courts more than a half-dozen related matters.

In the New York vaccination case, the court in December had rejected an emergency request from doctors, nurses and other medical workers who said they were being forced to choose between their livelihoods and their faith. They said they should receive a religious exemption because the state’s rule allows one for those who decline the vaccine for medical reasons.

While the majority at the time did not give a reason for rejecting the emergency applications, three justices said they were eager to decide the merits of such a case. The court also had denied a similar request from health-care workers in Maine.

The same three justices – Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito Jr. – objected Thursday to the court’s refusal to review the New York requirement that includes a medical exemption but no exception for religious objectors.

Thomas noted in a dissent that federal and state governments have implemented emergency measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and many, he wrote, “were not neutral toward religious exercise.”

“There remains considerable confusion over whether a mandate, like New York’s, that does not exempt religious conduct can ever be neutral and generally applicable if it exempts secular conduct that similarly frustrates the specific interest that the mandate serves,” he wrote.

Thomas said his colleagues should provide guidance to lower courts “before the next crisis forces us again to decide complex legal issues in an emergency posture.”

In the December order that refused to stop New York’s regulations, Gorsuch criticized New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, for rescinding a previous religious exemption.

“The State’s executive decree clearly interferes with the free exercise of religion – and does so seemingly based on nothing more than fear and anger at those who harbor unpopular religious beliefs,” Gorsuch wrote. “We allow the State to insist on the dismissal of thousands of medical workers – the very same individuals New York has depended on and praised for their service on the pandemic’s front lines.”

Last August, New York announced the vaccine requirement for health-care workers, with exceptions for religious and medical reasons. But eight days later, after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the state’s Department of Health narrowed the medical exception and eliminated the one for religious objectors.

“Like longstanding similar state vaccination requirements for measles and rubella, DOH’s rule at issue here contains a single, limited medical exemption,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a brief to the Supreme Court.

“That medical exemption is limited in scope and duration, exempting solely those employees for whom the COVID-19 vaccine would be detrimental to their health based on a preexisting health condition, and lasting only until immunization is no longer detrimental to that worker’s health.”

Court documents indicated about 96 percent of the state’s health-care workers have been vaccinated. Of those remaining, far more were asserting religious objections rather than seeking medical exemptions.

The case is Dr. A. v. Hochul.

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