The Supreme Court blocked a challenge to New York’s requirement that healthcare workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 even when they cite religious objections.
The court announced its ruling Monday afternoon in an unsigned order. Three of the court's justices—Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch—dissented, saying they would grant relief.
The vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, which went into effect in August, allows only for medical exemptions but not religious ones. Gorsuch argued in a 14-page dissent (PDF) the lack of a religious exemption violates the First Amendment.
A group of doctors and other medical professionals filed a lawsuit protesting that the state's requirement for staff in hospitals, long-term care and other healthcare facilities does not allow for a religious exemption.
The court previously refused to grant relief to healthcare workers in Maine for a similar state requirement.
Gorsuch wrote in his dissent that healthcare workers who filed the suit and a companion case are not "‘anti-vaxxers who object to all vaccines. but say they cannot receive a COVID–19 vaccine because "their religion teaches them to oppose abortion in any form, and because each of the currently available vaccines has depended upon abortion-de-rived fetal cell lines in its production or testing."
“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,” he 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," he wrote.
In an emergency application asking the Supreme Court to intercede, the healthcare workers’ lawyers wrote that the requirement “imposes an unconscionable choice on New York health care workers: abandon their faith or lose their careers and their best means to provide for their families.”
Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s solicitor general, responded that the state's emergency COVID-19 rule contains only a narrow medical exemption similar to preexisting vaccination requirements for measles and rubella that have been in effect for decades.
"The rule’s medical exemption is tightly constrained in both scope and duration and it serves rather than undermines the rule’s objective of protecting the health of healthcare workers," she wrote.
In response to the court's decision, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul tweeted, "Ensuring that the health care workers who care for our loved ones are vaccinated is critical to keeping New Yorkers safe."
The Medical Society of the State of New York applauded the court's decision, calling it an "important win" for the state's collective public health.
“We are confident that the Supreme Court ruling signifies another step toward bringing this pandemic to an end. We once again encourage every eligible New Yorker to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19," said Joseph Sellers, M.D., president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, in a statement.
The fight over vaccine mandates is now in the hands of the courts as state and federal lawmakers debate over the legality of such requirements.
President Joe Biden issued in November a national vaccine mandate for 17 million healthcare workers. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) rule would have required healthcare facilities participating in Medicare to have a policy in place ensuring that eligible staff receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine series by Dec. 5 and complete their series by Jan. 4, 2022. Failure to comply with the requirement could place an organization’s Medicare funding in jeopardy.
A Louisiana federal court earlier this month granted 14 states’ bid for a preliminary injunction that not only halts a CMS rule requiring COVID-19 vaccination for healthcare workers in their own states but across the entire nation.
That injunction effectively expanded a separate order issued by a federal court in Missouri.
CMS appealed both rulings.
Some hospitals and health systems have pumped the brakes on their own workforce COVID-19 vaccination requirements as they wait to see how the Biden administration’s nationwide mandate will play out in the courts.
Cleveland Clinic paused a systemwide vaccine policy while the CMS rule was placed on hold. HCA Healthcare, Intermountain Healthcare and University Hospitals also paused enforcement of vaccine requirements.