New York Ordered to Provide Religious Exemptions to State Vaccine Mandate

Allen Smith, J.D. By Allen Smith, J.D. October 13, 2021
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a medical professional administering the COVID-19 vaccine

[Editor's note: The district court's decision was subsequently reversed by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court then declined to block the state requirement.]​

New York state must let employers provide religious exemptions to a mandate that state health care workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, at least while litigation over the mandate proceeds, a federal district court judge decided Oct. 12. We've gathered articles on the news from SHRM Online and other outlets.

Religious Objections

The 17 plaintiffs are practicing doctors, M.D.s fulfilling their residency requirement, nurses, a nuclear medicine technologist, a cognitive rehabilitation therapist and a physician's liaison. They are employed by hospitals, nursing homes and other New York state entities. The plaintiffs hold the sincere religious belief that they can't consent to be inoculated with vaccines that "were tested, developed or produced with fetal cell lines derived from procured abortions," their complaint states.

The question in the case is whether the state's elimination of a religious exemption conflicts with the plaintiffs' and other individuals' federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers, according to the court. "The answer to this question is clearly yes," the court said.

(U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York)

Ruling's Impact

The court order temporarily blocks part of Gov. Kathy Hochul's effort to require vaccination for all health care workers. It offers a reprieve for thousands of unvaccinated doctors, nurses and support workers who had applied for religious exemptions and who would have been barred from working had the judge ruled for the state. The vaccine mandate remains in effect for all other health care workers.

(The New York Times)

Governor Defends Mandate

Hochul defended New York's mandate in a statement about the order. "My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that," she said. "I stand behind this mandate and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe."

(FOX News)

Religious Exemptions Expected Under OSHA's Rule

Businesses with at least 100 employees will soon be required to mandate that employees get vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to weekly testing. An emergency temporary standard is expected from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA's rule will almost certainly affirm that employers must accommodate employees who refuse to be vaccinated based on a sincerely held belief or medical exemption, said Paula Ketcham, an attorney with Schiff Hardin in Chicago.

(SHRM Online)

Is an Employee's Religious Objection Sincere?

To determine whether an employee's objection is based on religious beliefs, ask the following:

  • During the discussion about the objection, did the employee continually veer off into the politics of COVID-19 or vaccines?
  • Does the employee's real concern appear to be the safety of the vaccines?
  • Does the employee's real concern appear to be that mandatory vaccination is an infringement on his or her personal freedom?
  • Does the employee seem to genuinely believe it would be a sin to get the vaccine?
  • Can the employee reasonably articulate why he or she believes that vaccination would be sinful?

(SHRM Online)

EEOC Guidance

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has weighed in with guidance that answers some workplace vaccination questions. For example, the agency said federal anti-discrimination laws don't prohibit employers from requiring all employees who physically enter the workplace to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Employers that encourage or require vaccinations, however, must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other workplace laws, according to the EEOC.

"An employee with a religious objection or a disability may need to be excused from the mandate or otherwise accommodated," noted John Lomax, an attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix.

(SHRM Online)

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