Judge suspends NY state vaccine mandate for health care workers who claim religious exemption

Judge suspends NY state vaccine mandate for health care workers who claim religious exemption
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

A federal judge issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday temporarily suspending New York state from enforcing its vaccine mandate if health care workers claim a religious exemption.

The order bars the New York State Department of Health from requiring employers to deny or revoke religious exemptions for the vaccine. The health department issued an order in August requiring all health care workers be vaccinated against Covid-19 by September 27.

Seventeen Catholic and Baptist medical professionals who say they oppose getting the vaccine for religious reasons sought to prevent the state from enforcing the mandate, according to a federal complaint filed in New York on Monday.

The professionals — nine doctors, five nurses, a nuclear medicine technologist, a physician liaison and a rehabilitation therapist — wanted a judgment declaring the mandate “unconstitutional, unlawful, and unenforceable,” according to the lawsuit.

“The Vaccine Mandate emerges in the context of an atmosphere of fear and irrationality in which the unvaccinated are threatened with being reduced to a caste of untouchables if they will not consent to being injected, even ‘continuously,’ with vaccines that violate their religious beliefs,” the complaint said.

They are seeking a temporary statewide restraining order against the mandate followed by a permanent injunction, according to the lawsuit.

The judge set a September 22 deadline for defendants to oppose the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, and he scheduled a hearing in the case for September 28.

The mandate, the lawsuit argues, overrides protections provided under the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, New York State’s Human Rights Law, the Supremacy Clause as well as the First and 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.

The lawsuit names New York Attorney General Letitia James, Commissioner Howard Zucker of the State Department of Health and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul as defendants in the complaint.

CNN reached out to Hochul’s office but was told it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. CNN also reached out to Hochul’s administration, the Department of Health and the attorney general’s office for comment and was referred to the Department of Health.

Debate surrounding vaccine mandates has picked up since President Joe Biden announced a new plan to tackle the pandemic last week, which includes vaccine requirements in some workplaces.

Health experts and many officials have called vaccine mandates a necessary step to protect the population and slow the spread of the virus. But there has also been blowback from some state leaders, such as Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, who have called the announcement at the federal level an overreach and pledged to challenge it in court.

Pope Francis declares vaccination ‘the moral choice’

The plaintiffs cited religious convictions that prevent them from being inoculated with vaccines that they said “were tested, developed or produced with fetal cells line derived from procured abortions.”

Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna used cell lines originating from fetal tissue to test their vaccines but they are not used in vaccine manufacturing or production, whereas fetal cell lines were used in Johnson & Johnson’s “development, confirmation and production,” according to Dr. James Lawler, an infectious disease expert at Nebraska Medicine.

Those cells are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue, said Lawler.

No major religious denomination has taken a stand opposing vaccination. Pope Francis declared it “the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”

Last month, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas said it would not issue letters of exemption on religious grounds, according to a communication obtained by CNN.

“For the past several months, our Holy Father Pope Francis has made it clear that the various forms of Covid vaccines are morally acceptable, urging Catholics across the globe to become vaccinated, not only for their own safety and well-being, but also out of concern for the weak and vulnerable in our midst,” Bishop George Leo Thomas said.

The Thomas More Society, a self-described pro-life group, provided the attorney for the 17 plaintiffs in this case.

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