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New York May Allow Some Religious Exemptions To The COVID Vaccine, Judge Says

NEW YORK NOW - A federal judge has paused New York’s decision to prohibit religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers, who the state has required to get their first dose of the shot by late September, or potentially lose their job.

That decision won’t go into effect until that requirement begins on September 27, giving the state time to make its case to the court for barring those exemptions.

The five-page decision, handed down by a federal judge in Utica, was in response to a lawsuit filed Monday against the state by a handful of health care workers who don’t want to get the vaccine because of their religious beliefs.

“The vaccine mandate is suspended in operation to the extent that the DOH is barred from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination,” U.S. District Judge David Hurd wrote in the order.

A temporary restraining order is the first step in a case like this; it’s essentially a pause while the litigation continues. The next step would be a preliminary injunction, which would enjoin the state from prohibiting religious exemptions for health care workers.

Hurd gave attorneys for the state until September 22, next Wednesday, to file papers defending the ban on religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers.

Spokespeople for the Hochul administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday’s decision.

The Medical Society of the State of New York reacted to the decision in a statement, saying it could cause an influx of workers attempting to claim a religious exemption, when they're actually just trying to circumvent the state's regulation.

"We believe this step will result in a flurry of attempts to circumvent the well-reasoned vaccination requirement that was an important step towards reversing the recent surge attributable to the more easily spread Delta variant," said Joseph Sellers, the group's president.

Sellers said he's hopeful that the decision will be reversed before the state's vaccine mandate for health care workers goes into effect later this month.

Hurd's decision is in contrast to another order, issued over the weekend, from a federal judge on Long Island, who declined to grant a temporary restraining order against the state.

The litigation stems from an emergency regulation approved late last month by the state’s Public Health and Health Planning Council, which voted to require the COVID-19 vaccine for all health care workers, without the option for a religious exemption.

The often-forgot panel is a way for the state to issue emergency health regulations without having to go through the review process, though its decisions haven’t always survived legal scrutiny.

The panel also moved to ban flavored vaping products in 2019, but that decision was thrown out in court. The Legislature later codified it, making the case against the panel moot.