Status of Religious Exemptions in New York State

As detailed in previous legal briefings (https://www.lawpf.com/post/new-york-vaccination-mandate-update), New York State’s Department of Health has enacted regulations mandating most healthcare facilities to require workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. These regulations have been the subject of litigation in the Federal Courts since being adopted. Among these cases is Dr. A, et al. v. Hochul, et al. The issue presented by this litigation is whether New York State violated the first amendment by denying healthcare workers the possibility of a religious exemption from being required to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. In many other circumstances, such as the routine vaccinations required for attendance at a public school, individuals who hold a genuine and sincere religious belief that is incompatible with receiving a vaccine can obtain a vaccine exemption. (See e.g. https://regs.health.ny.gov/content/section-69-310-religious-exemption-immunization).


New York State did not provide healthcare workers with this ability to obtain an exemption for religious reasons with respect to the COVID-19 vaccine. The Plaintiffs in Dr. A, sought to enjoin, or temporarily stop, the State from enforcing this vaccine mandate. On October 12, 2021, the District Court for the Northern District Court of New York agreed with the Plaintiffs and granted an injunction preventing New York State from enforcing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate because it did not permit employers to allow religious exemptions. (https://eadn-wc01-1479010.nxedge.io/cdn/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Dr.-A-v.-Hochul-Order-GRANTING-PI-10-12-21.pdf)


The District Court determined that New York State’s lack of a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate conflicted with the federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their employer, and that the Plaintiffs demonstrated a likelihood of success on these issues.


The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit disagreed, and vacated the District Court’s injunction. (https://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f58de402-107a-4be9-bbce-e6c56e6da878/3/doc/21-2179_21-2566_opn.pdf#xml=https://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f58de402-107a-4be9-bbce-e6c56e6da878/3/hilite/).


The Second Circuit noted that the Plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits because they failed to demonstrate that the mandate was not drafted as a neutral law of general applicability, and that the mandate would not satisfy a rational basis review. Additionally, the Second Circuit noted that it was possible for employers to accommodate employees under Title VII and the vaccine mandate. The Second Circuit also took the unusual step of later clarifying its opinion on November 12, 2021, by clearly stating that the vaccine mandate was in effect as of November 4, 2021. (https://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f58de402-107a-4be9-bbce-e6c56e6da878/2/doc/21-2179_21-2566_Nov12_opn.pdf#xml=https://www.ca2.uscourts.gov/decisions/isysquery/f58de402-107a-4be9-bbce-e6c56e6da878/2/hilite/).


The Plaintiffs in the Dr. A case later filed an application with the United States Supreme Court to reinstate the preliminary injunction. On December 13, 2021, the Supreme Court denied the Plaintiffs’ application with respect to the injunction. (https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/21a145_gfbi.pdf)


While it is possible the Dr. A litigation could continue and result in the vaccine mandate being overturned, the process of litigation could take some time to resolve. Therefore, the regulations requiring most healthcare facilities to ensure workers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 remains in effect. The regulations do formally recognize medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate.


Our Firm has extensive experience counseling employers and businesses on compliance requirements, as well as preparing and implementing applicable policies. If you have any questions related to this Legal Briefing, please contact any member of our Firm at 585-730-4773. Please note that any embedded links to other documents may expire in the future.


This Legal Briefing is intended for general informational and educational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice or counsel. The substance of this Legal Briefing is not intended to cover all legal issues or developments regarding the matter. Please consult with an attorney to ascertain how these new developments may relate to you or your business. © 2021 Law Offices of Pullano & Farrow PLLC

Status of Religious Exemptions in NYS
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