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Supreme Court lets vaccine mandate stand without religious exemption

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Over the objection of three justices, the Supreme Court on Thursday left in place New York’s coronavirus vaccine requirement for health-care workers that drew a challenge over its lack of a religious exemption.

The court’s order came on the final day of its term, as the justices also announced their final decisions and what additional cases they will review when the court reconvenes in October. Notably, they declined to hear arguments related to significant rulings this month that eliminate the nationwide right to abortion and expand the right to carry firearms in public.

Instead, the justices returned to lower courts more than a half-dozen related matters. They tossed earlier decisions upholding states’ limits on firearms and blocking certain abortion restrictions, instructing judges to reconsider those rulings on the basis of the Supreme Court’s new guidance. The court’s orders mean judges will have to revisit Second Amendment rulings that have permitted Maryland’s ban on semiautomatic military-style firearms, passed after the 2012 mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school, and banned firearm magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition in California and New Jersey.

Separately, lower courts will have to look again at measures in Arizona and Arkansas that ban abortions performed because of fetal abnormalities, such as Down syndrome, and an Indiana law expanding parental notification requirements before a minor terminates a pregnancy. All three laws were prevented from taking effect before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last week.

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In the New York vaccination case, the court in December had rejected an emergency request from doctors, nurses and other medical workers who said they were being forced to choose between their livelihoods and their faith. They said they should receive a religious exemption because the state’s rule allows one for those who decline the vaccine for medical reasons.

While the majority at the time did not give a reason for rejecting the emergency applications, three justices said they were eager to decide the merits of such a case. The court also had denied a similar request from health-care workers in Maine.

The same three justices — Clarence Thomas, Neil M. Gorsuch and Samuel A. Alito Jr. — objected Thursday to the court’s refusal to review the New York requirement that includes a medical exemption but no exception for religious objectors.

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Thomas noted in a dissent that federal and state governments have implemented emergency measures in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and many, he wrote, “were not neutral toward religious exercise.”

“There remains considerable confusion over whether a mandate, like New York’s, that does not exempt religious conduct can ever be neutral and generally applicable if it exempts secular conduct that similarly frustrates the specific interest that the mandate serves,” he wrote.

Thomas said his colleagues should provide guidance to lower courts “before the next crisis forces us again to decide complex legal issues in an emergency posture.”

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In the December order that refused to stop New York’s regulations, Gorsuch criticized New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) for rescinding a previous religious exemption.

“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,” Gorsuch wrote. “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.”

Last August, New York announced the vaccine requirement for health-care workers, with exceptions for religious and medical reasons. But eight days later, after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the state’s Health Department narrowed the medical exception and eliminated the one for religious objectors.

“Like longstanding similar state vaccination requirements for measles and rubella, DOH’s rule at issue here contains a single, limited medical exemption,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a brief to the Supreme Court.

“That medical exemption is limited in scope and duration, exempting solely those employees for whom the COVID-19 vaccine would be detrimental to their health based on a preexisting health condition, and lasting only until immunization is no longer detrimental to that worker’s health.”

Court documents indicated about 96 percent of the state’s health-care workers have been vaccinated. Of those remaining, far more were asserting religious objections than seeking medical exemptions.

In his dissent Thursday, Thomas wrote that the 16 health-care workers who sued served New York communities throughout the pandemic and “object on religious grounds to all available COVID–19 vaccines because they were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children.”

The state countered that the coronavirus vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells.

The case is Dr. A. v. Hochul.



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