SCOTUS Won't Halt New York's Vaccine Mandate for Health Care Workers

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that it will not halt the enforcement of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for New York health care workers that does not contain religious exemptions.

The emergency appeals heard by the court were brought by medical workers from the state who say the mandate violates their First Amendment rights to practice their religion, and it is making them choose between their beliefs or their employment.

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, with Gorsuch writing a 14-page opinion, saying in part, "Now, thousands of New York healthcare workers face the loss of their jobs and eligibility for unemployment benefits."

Similar mandates that exclude religious reasons are in place in Maine and Rhode Island, and the court previously turned away a similar complaint from health care workers in Maine. Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito also dissented in that decision.

Several of the health care workers in the New York complaint objected to the vaccines because of the cell lines used in testing and development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that have distant connections to fetal cell lines from abortions performed in the 1970s and 1980s, according to CNN.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said the request to halt the mandate should be denied because if workers are unvaccinated, they are more likely to contract COVID and miss work, creating "a vicious cycle of staff shortages and deterioration of patient care."

James said the cell lines used in testing for the vaccines were not involved in the production of what is injected into people, and the cell lines used in the tests were grown in a lab and "thousands of generations removed" from the cells collected from fetuses in the 1970s.

Last December, the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in a note approved by Pope Francis that getting vaccinated was morally permitted by the church.

New York Vaccine Mandate, Supreme Court, Religion
The U.S. Supreme Court on December 13, 2021, ruled that it would not stop the enforcement of a New York vaccine mandate for health care workers that does not include religious exemptions. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press File

As is typical in such appeals, the court did not explain its order, although it has similarly refused to get in the way of vaccine mandates elsewhere.

As of October 19, roughly 90 percent of health care workers were fully vaccinated and most of the rest had received one of two doses, the state told the high court. Fewer than 2 percent of nursing home, adult care facility and hospital workers had sought a religious exemption, the state said.

In his dissent, Gorsuch drew a link between the health care workers and the World War II-era Jehovah's Witnesses schoolchildren who refused on religious grounds to stand and salute the American flag for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The court at first refused to intervene when a public school in Pennsylvania expelled the children. But three years later, the justices overruled the earlier case in a landmark decision that declared schools couldn't force students to salute the flag or recite the pledge.

"Today, our Nation faces not a world war but a pandemic. Like wars, though, pandemics often produce demanding new social rules aimed at protecting collective interests — and with those rules can come fear and anger at individuals unable to conform for religious reasons," Gorsuch wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.