Judges give mixed rulings in vaccine cases
Federal courts limit a New York COVID-19 vaccine mandate while upholding another one in Maine
A federal court in New York earlier this week temporarily blocked a state COVID-19 vaccine mandate that threatened the jobs of healthcare workers who have religious objections to the shots. Meanwhile in Maine, a different federal judge came to a nearly opposite conclusion, upholding a similar mandate there.
Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Court Judge David Hurd, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, found that the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and the anti-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act trumped a state rule requiring most healthcare workers—even those with religious objections—to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Health authorities had previously allowed both religious and medical exemptions to the mandate, but on Aug. 23 they eliminated the religious exemption.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires most employers to “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious observance or practice, provided it does not cause the employer “undue hardship.” Hurd acknowledged that federal law does not require a religious exemption, but he concluded New York’s mandate “effectively foreclosed the pathway to seeking a religious accommodation that is guaranteed under Title VII.”
Hurd noted the state’s change to the mandate resulted in treating religious and medical objectors differently. “This intentional change in language is the kind of ‘religious gerrymander’ that triggers heightened scrutiny,” he wrote, adding that “there is no adequate explanation from defendants about why the ‘reasonable accommodation’ that must be extended to a medically exempt healthcare worker under [the mandate] could not similarly be extended to a healthcare worker with a sincere religious objection.”
Thomas More Center attorney Christopher Ferrara pointed to the unspoken rationale underlying the different treatment of religious workers. “What they’re really saying with this mandate is, ‘We think that health reasons are more important than religious reasons.’” Such an approach is unconstitutional, argued Ferrara, who represented the 17 doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who sued the state.
“Some of these plaintiffs contracted COVID while treating patients, recovered, and were allowed to return to work with the same protective measures that were good enough for the 18 months that they were the heroes in the battle against the virus,” Ferrara said in a statement. “There is no ‘science’ to show that these same measures are suddenly inadequate—especially when they are allowed for those with medical exemptions.”
The New York ruling contrasted with a separate one on Wednesday in a similar lawsuit in Maine, where a federal judge denied healthcare workers’ request that the state allow religious exemptions to its vaccine mandate.
U.S. District Judge Jon Levy, an Obama appointee, reasoned that, unlike New York, Maine had eliminated religious objections to all mandated vaccines, not just COVID-19 vaccines. Disagreeing with the New York ruling, Levy concluded that the existence of a medical exemption did not require strict scrutiny of the law.
“Because the medical exemption serves the core purpose of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, it does not reflect a value judgment prioritizing a purely secular interest … over religious interests,” Levy wrote.
Ferrara of the Thomas More Center said that, in contrast to the New York ruling, Levy’s conclusion seems to reflect a valuing of health over religious concerns.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has fast-tracked a review of Hurd’s ruling in the New York case, with oral arguments set for Oct. 27. Its outcome may affect a separate lawsuit that Orlando-based Liberty Counsel filed against the state and several private healthcare providers on behalf of over 1,500 healthcare workers with religious objections. A hearing on that case is scheduled for Oct. 19.
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