The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to issue an injunction against New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers, which doesn’t allow them to seek a religious exemption.
New York state imposed the vaccine mandate for doctors and nurses in August, which allows only for medical exemptions, not religious ones. The religious exemption policy expired in November.
The latest decision suggests the high court lacks the appetite to wade into the matter of mandates. The Supreme Court has previously rejected other challenges, including one that focused on Maine’s lack of a religious exemption to vaccine mandates for health care workers.
Petitioners, which included Christian doctors, said New York’s vaccine mandate violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition on religious discrimination on behalf of the government. They also argued that it violates federal civil rights law that requires businesses to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch wrote they would have supported temporarily halting enforcement of New York’s mandate.
“Sometimes dissenting religious beliefs can seem strange and bewildering. In times of crisis, this puzzlement can evolve into fear and anger,” Gorsuch wrote in his dissent.
“One can only hope today’s ruling will not be the final chapter in this grim story,” Gorsuch continued. “Cases like this one may serve as cautionary tales for those who follow.”
In October, when the Supreme Court didn’t take up the Maine vaccine case, Gorsuch wrote that “healthcare workers who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months are now being fired and their practices shuttered,” adding that they have been terminated “for adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs.”
“Their plight is worthy of our attention,” he argued.
The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines both used fetal cell lines in their testing stages, while Johnson & Johnson used a human fetal cell line known as PER.C6. PER.C6 was developed from the retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus that was aborted in 1985.
Other than Maine and New York, Rhode Island is the only other state that doesn’t allow religious exemptions to the vaccine for health care workers.
New York’s Department of Health on Aug. 26 ordered health care professionals who come in contact with patients or other employees to be vaccinated by Sept. 27. That deadline was delayed to Nov. 22.
The state has said that under the policy employers can consider religious accommodation requests and employees can be reassigned to jobs such as remote work.
The state said medical exceptions are meant for the small number of people who have had a serious allergic reaction to the COVID-19 vaccines and that longstanding health care worker vaccine mandates for measles and rubella have no religious exemptions.
Reuters contributed to this report.