N.Y. health workers seek to halt shots mandate, citing religion

Nurse Sandra Lindsay participates in a conference call with Governor Andrew Cuomo after she is inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine, at Northwell Health at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York, U.S., December 14, 2020. Mark Lennihan/Pool via REUTERS

Three New York healthcare workers asked a federal appeals court to block a state health regulation requiring them to get vaccinated against Covid-19, saying they object to the shot because of their religious beliefs.

The workers, all women, say their faith prevents them from accepting any of the three major Covid-19 vaccines distributed in the U.S., because the drug companies behind them “relied on use of a fetal cell line harvested from aborted fetuses” in the 1970s and 1980s. They said abortion violates their religious principles.

Their lawyer asked a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Manhattan on Wednesday to temporarily bar the state from enforcing the rule without a provision for religious objections while the court considers the merits of the case.

“New York cannot target religion for special disabilities,” Cameron Atkinson, a lawyer for the three women and for We the Patriots USA, a non-profit group, told the judges. Atkinson said he’ll seek to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the court in Manhattan denies his request for a injunction.

Two of the women, who are nurses at a privately run hospital, are likely to be fired for refusing to get the shots, Atkinson said.

He cited statements by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul at a Brooklyn church on Sunday. She claimed “that God wants you to get the vaccine,” Atkinson said. “It’s overt pressure on those employers to make these firings.”

Lawsuits over mandates have left employers, workers and patrons in a state of flux while courts consider whether to let the vaccine requirements go forward while the underlying question of whether they’re lawful is litigated.

Earlier this month, a judge in Utica ordered the state to hold off enforcement of the health regulation temporarily because it lacks an exemption for those claiming religious objections. Two state judges have also entered orders delaying the state from going forward.

On Monday, the appeals court allowed a vaccine requirement for New York City school employees to go forward, lifting a temporary injunction it had imposed earlier to block the move. With school already in session, New York’s school system — the biggest in the U.S. — is poised to bar school employees and contractors who don’t show proof of vaccination starting Oct. 4.

Delaying the mandate “poses the risk of infection, complications, and death to the vulnerable population that they serve,” New York said in court papers. Courts have upheld vaccination requirements for more than a century, according to the state.

Steven Wu, a lawyer for the state, argued that the vaccine rule is neutral toward religion.

“It doesn’t target or display any hostility to religious beliefs,” he said.

Wu argued the Covid-19 vaccine requirements are no different from rules that healthcare workers must receive inoculations against rubella and measles, regardless of religious objections.

The judges didn’t say when they’ll rule on the request.

The case is: We the Patriots USA Inc., 12-02179, Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Manhattan).




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