Religious vaccine exemption stays for NY health care workers

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that New York must continue to allow health care workers to seek exemptions from a statewide vaccine mandate on religious grounds as a lawsuit challenging the requirement proceeds.
Judge David Hurd in Utica had issued a temporary restraining order a month ago after 17 doctors, nurses and other health professionals claimed in a lawsuit that their rights would be violated with a vaccine mandate that disallowed the exemptions.
Hurd’s preliminary injunction Tuesday means New York will continue to be barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions.
The decision reads in part that: “Plaintiffs have established that [the mandate] conflicts with longstanding federal protections for religious beliefs and that they and others will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief.”
Registered nurse Donna Schmidt is currently part of a similar lawsuit and says that the process has been draining.
“It is extremely upsetting,” Schmidt says. “It’s really unbelievable in some moments but I wake up each day and I know that I’m doing the right thing.”
Hurd wrote that the health care workers challenging suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim.
Attorney Jesse Weber says it’s a temporary victory for employees, but it does not mean the requirement will be thrown out for everyone claiming to have a religious exemption.
“It goes back to the employer to say, ‘OK employee, let me hear what your religious exemption is, and we’ll determine if it fits the criteria and if an accommodation can be made,’” Weber says.
Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration began requiring workers at hospitals and nursing homes to be vaccinated on Sept. 27 and more recently expanded the requirement to include workers at assisted living homes, hospice care, treatment centers and home health aides.
Hochul released a statement, stating: “My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of the state and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that. I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe.”
(Associated Press wires contributed to this story.)