The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday heard arguments in a case brought by a conservative nonprofit challenging a New York order that prohibits state health care workers from seeking religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
We The Patriots USA, Inc. wants the three-judge panel to grant a temporary injunction that would force the state to allow religious exemption requests from health care workers while the court fight continues.
The case stems from an emergency order issued in August by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Hochul requiring state health care workers to get a vaccine or a medical exemption — or face suspension or termination. Over the weekend, she unveiled a plan to deal with potential worker shortages which includes the possibility of activating the National Guard.
The order took effect Monday, but a federal court in Utica last week ruled in a similar case and temporarily blocked the vaccine mandate for those seeking a religious exemption until Oct. 12 — which prompted the circuit judges to question the need for another injunction.
Cameron Atkinson, lead attorney for the Connecticut-based nonprofit, argued the group of Christian nurses he represents should not “be dependent on the outcome of other proceedings.”
“They’re on a ticking clock,” he said. “As soon as that clock swings in the direction of the orders being lifted … my clients are left hung out to dry — they’re fired on the spot the next day.”
The nurses say they do not want to take a vaccine linked to fetal stem cells because it would violate their Christian beliefs. They argue the lack of a religious exemption violates their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
Meanwhile, New York Deputy Solicitor General Steven Wu argued that the regulation does not run afoul of that constitutional right because it does not target or display hostility to religion and it applies to all health care workers.
Asked why there is a medical exemption but not a religious exemption, he said there was a “desire” to make it consistent with mandates for measles and rubella vaccines, which also only include medical exemptions. He added that religious exemptions generally exceed medical exemptions by a “significant” amount.
Mr. Wu said the governor’s order came in response to “very serious” concern over the highly transmissible delta variant “which has really swamped the diagnoses that are taking place across the state.”
“And this order was issued to ensure the health care workers in these facilities who are dealing with particularly vulnerable populations will be protected themselves, and will not themselves be a vector for further spread in these facilities,” he said.
It is not clear when the judges will rule on the case.
If the preliminary injunction is denied, We The Patriots USA, Inc. said it plans to file an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The group’s website states that it is dedicated to “fighting to restore individual liberties and the God-given inalienable rights of all Americans, as recorded in the United States Constitution.”