A federal judge ruled Tuesday that New York must continue to allow healthcare workers to seek exemptions from a statewide COVID-19 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 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.
Hurd wrote the healthcare workers suing the state were likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim. The question presented in this case, Hurd wrote, is whether the mandate "conflicts with plaintiffs' and other individuals' federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers. The answer to this question is clearly yes."
Unlike other judges who have heard similar cases about vaccine mandates, Hurd concluded "the public interest lies with enforcing the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination law" and not the wider public health, WABC reported.
Democrat 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.
The state has not provided information on the total number of healthcare workers who have sought religious exemptions.
The plaintiffs, all Christians, oppose as a matter of religious conviction any medical cooperation in abortion, including the use of vaccines linked to fetal cell lines in testing, development, or production, according to court papers.
Several types of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue exist and are widely used in medical manufacturing, but the cells in them today are clones of the early cells, not the original tissue.
The COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson is produced by using an adenovirus that is grown using retinal cells that trace to a fetus from 1985, according to the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a January statement that "abortion-derived" cell lines were used to test the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines but not in their development or production.
Hurd also allowed the plaintiffs to keep their identities private; the plaintiffs said they wanted to proceed anonymously because they feared the risk of retaliation or being ostracized.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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