- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2021

Health care workers in New York are the latest group to sue over a state law mandating COVID-19 vaccinations without allowing individuals to claim a religious exemption.

Registered nurses joined by the nonprofit group We the Patriots USA filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday against New York Democratic Gov. Kathleen Hochul, arguing that they oppose taking a vaccine linked to fetal stem cells due to their Christian religious beliefs.

According to the lawsuit, the three COVID-19 vaccines offered in the U.S. all rely “on [the] use of a fetal cell line harvested from aborted fetuses acquired in the 1970s and 1980s.”

“The elimination of the religious exemption will require plaintiffs … to choose either to submit to a vaccination abhorrent to their deeply held beliefs or lose their employment,” the lawsuit read.

Ms. Hochul, who replaced former Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month, has required that all health care workers in the state get at least one of the shots by Sept. 27. Only a medical exemption is an accepted excuse from the requirement, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs asked the judge to rule that the requirement that fails to provide a religious exemption violates the First Amendment.

Ms. Hochul’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the matter was still in litigation.

New York is not the only state facing litigation.

Health care workers in Maine filed a lawsuit last month against Maine Democratic Gov. Janet Mills and state health officials to block the enforcement of Ms. Mills’ mandate that they get vaccinated by October — without a religious exemption, arguing it runs afoul of the Civil Rights Act, which protects against religious discrimination. And earlier in August, a federal court in Louisiana blocked a medical school from requiring students get the COVID-19 vaccine. The students argued the requirement violates their religious right to an exemption.

Jessica Holzer, a professor at the University of New Haven, predicts there will be more legal battles as people fight vaccine mandates.

She said there’s no federal law requiring states to offer certain exemptions, though every state that she knows of at least offers a medical excuse to avoid taking the vaccines aimed at stopping the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

“Different states have established different levels of exemptions,” she said.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1905 that states have the authority to require vaccinations in the case of Jacobson v Massachusetts, though the man in that legal battle wasn’t forced to take the vaccine and was penalized with a fine.

“Vaccine mandates are nothing new,” said Ms. Holzer.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said private companies must offer medical and religious exemptions, though they can be narrow, according to Lawrence Gostin, a health law professor at Georgetown University.

Michael Urban, a professor at the University of New Haven, said the problem for some individuals claiming religious exemptions is that it can simply be a personal stance instead of an official position of a particular denomination.

“You have had several religious figureheads such as Pope Francis publicly [urging] people to get vaccinated. This falls true for the Church of Scientology and so forth. So people who are trying to claim their religious beliefs are being violated when their own religious leaders are publicly encouraging them to be vaccinated will not hold up as a reasonable defense,” he said.

Michael Hayes, a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said a ruling from the Supreme Court in the 1980s held that an employer could refuse accommodations on religious beliefs if there was a more than “trivial” burden on the employer.

He said both state and private employers have multiple arguments for mandating the shots, referencing “the risk of spreading the COVID virus to co-workers and others with whom that employee comes into contact, as well as possible health care costs if unvaccinated employees become infected — as has happened with many unvaccinated persons.”

Alix Rogers, a professor at UC-Davis School of Law, also said states have an interest in combating a rise in diseases and viruses, and noted that California and Connecticut have removed religious exemptions for school-mandated shots.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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