Supreme Court allows New York vaccine mandate for health care workers

December 13, 2021
A syringe is filled with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 to 11 at Native Health Central clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, on Nov. 5.
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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday permitted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate in New York that doesn’t include a religious exemption, the latest instance in which the nation’s highest court has declined to wade into the issue of vaccination requirements imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

New York state imposed the vaccine mandate for health care workers in August. The policy allows for medical exemptions but not those based on religious objections. An earlier religious exemption to the requirement expired last month.

The Supreme Court was considering two emergency challenges to that mandate and decided to allow the law to stand in both of them. In each case, three conservatives – Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – said they would have supported temporarily halting enforcement of the mandate.

“Sometimes dissenting religious beliefs can seem strange and bewildering. In times of crisis, this puzzlement can evolve into fear and anger,” Gorsuch wrote in dissenting from the decision to not block the mandate’s enforcement. 

“One can only hope today’s ruling will not be the final chapter in this grim story,” he continued. “Cases like this one may serve as cautionary tales for those who follow. But how many more reminders do we need that ‘the Constitution is not to be obeyed or disobeyed as the circumstances of a particular crisis . . . may suggest’?”

Nurses, doctors and other health care workers asserted in a lawsuit that the lack of a religious exemption violated their First Amendment right to practice religion. The objections centered on the use fetal cells from abortions in the vaccines’ development. 

The Supreme Court has so far avoided the issue of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, turning away several appeals challenging requirements. The justices declined in October to block a vaccine mandate for health care workers in Maine over similar objections.

In the Maine case, three of the court’s conservatives said they would have granted the request by health care workers to block enforcement of that state’s mandate.  

“Healthcare workers who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months are now being fired and their practices shuttered. All for adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs,” Gorsuch wrote then. “Their plight is worthy of our attention.”

The latest decision comes as challenges to President Joe Biden’s requirement that large employers require workers to be vaccinated or receive regular testing are working through federal courts. Implementation of the requirement was put on hold by a federal appeals court in a case that is likely bound for the Supreme Court. 

In the New York case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit allowed the state vaccine requirements to stand.      

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines both used fetal cells for testing but not in their production. Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI both received vaccines. 

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