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Supreme Court Rejects Appeal for Religious Exemptions to NY Vaccine Mandate

Despite striking remarks from New York Governor Kathy Hochul that cast doubt on religious neutrality, majority of justices rule to allow mandate on medical workers to continue

This past Monday, December 13, 2021, the Supreme Court denied a request made by a group of medical workers in New York to grant injunctive relief against a state mandate that would require all healthcare personnel to be vaccinated against COVID-19, declining the opportunity to modify the standard it articulated three decades ago in Employment Division v. Smith. The state, then under the governorship of Andrew Cuomo, initially indicated that both medical and religious exemptions to the mandate would be provided.

However, following Cuomo’s resignation on the heels of an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment, the administration of new Governor Kathy Hochul issued a revised version of the proposed mandate, this time making no allowance for religious objections. At a speaking engagement at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Governor Hochul spoke about the vaccine mandate, saying “God gave us [the vaccines] through men and women so we could be delivered from this pandemic. So how can you say no to that? How can you believe that God would give a vaccine that would cause you harm? That is not the truth.” Additionally, at a Q&A session, Governor Hochul said, “We left off [religious exemptions] intentionally… I’m not aware of a sanctioned religious exemption from any organized religion.” Her comments are somewhat strange, in light of the fact that the Court has consistently recognized that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects individual belief and practice, irrespective of the practices of institutionally organized religions. Moreover, as the research and testing that resulted in each of the currently-available COVID-19 vaccines depended, in part, on cell lines from aborted fetuses, the applicants for injunctive relief assert that their religious beliefs preclude them from being vaccinated.

The Court ruled 6-3 against granting the requested relief, with only Justices Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas siding in favor of the applicants. In a dissent of unusual length for a ruling of this sort, Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Alito) argued that the Governor’s comments, along with subsequent changes made to New York’s unemployment benefits that would negatively impact any healthcare workers whose jobs were lost due to refusing the vaccine, pose serious questions about the legality of the mandate under the First Amendment: “This record [with respect to the mandate] practically exudes suspicion of those who hold unpopular religious beliefs. That alone is sufficient to render the mandate unconstitutional as applied to these applicants.”

While the Court ruled against the applicants’ request for relief, their rejection of the application does not preclude later challenges. If, for instance, a medical worker who refuses to comply with the mandate loses his or her job, New York could be vulnerable to a subsequent lawsuit.

As we approach the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, responses by both state and private actors continue to pose questions of legality, and there is little to indicate that they will cease to do so any time soon. We at LRI will continue to provide coverage of major stories as they emerge, and we invite you to continue checking our website and YouTube channel for more content.

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