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Supreme Court declines to halt New York vaccine mandate for health care workers

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Washington — The Supreme Court on Monday left in place New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers, turning away a challenge by a group of medical providers who sued because it does not include a religious exemption.

Over the dissents of Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, the high court rejected the request from the 17 anonymous doctors and nurses, nearly all of whom are Catholic, to block enforcement of the vaccine requirement while proceedings continued. 

Gorsuch, joined by Alito, penned a 14-page dissent in which he bemoaned that the Supreme Court failed not only the medical providers seeking relief, but said the justices "fail ourselves." 

"Six weeks ago, this court refused relief in a case involving Maine's healthcare workers. Today, the Court repeats the mistake by turning away New York's doctors and nurses," Gorsuch wrote. "We do all this even though the state's executive decree clearly interferes with the free exercise of religion — and does so seemingly based on nothing more than fear and anger at those who harbor unpopular religious beliefs.

"We allow the state to insist on the dismissal of thousands of medical workers — the very same individuals New York has depended on and praised for their service on the pandemic's front lines over the last 21 months. To add insult to injury, we allow the state to deny these individuals unemployment benefits too," he continued. "One can only hope today's ruling will not be the final chapter in this grim story."

The court in October rejected an emergency appeal from health care workers in Maine to block its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Forty-seven states and the federal government have vaccine requirements that include religious exemptions.

Former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state's vaccine mandate for certain health care workers, which included a medical and religious exemption, in mid-August. But after taking over for Cuomo following his resignation, Governor Kathy Hochul updated the requirement to cover a broader range of health care entities. The later rule also omitted the exemption for those who oppose vaccination on religious grounds, though it maintained a narrow medical exemption.

Under the vaccine requirement, health care workers who fail to comply with the mandate face termination and are also ineligible for unemployment insurance benefits. The mandate was set to take effect September 27.

The group of 17 doctors and nurses challenged the absence of a religious exemption in the vaccine mandate in federal court in September, arguing it violated the First Amendment and federal civil rights law, and asked the court to block enforcement against them. The district court sided with the workers and said the vaccine mandate rule is a "religious gerrymander."

But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and said New York's vaccine mandate was neutral and generally applicable.  

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