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Top Court Lets N.Y. Mandate Vaccines for Health-Care Workers (2)

Dec. 13, 2021, 10:28 PM

A divided U.S. Supreme Court left in force New York’s requirement that health-care workers be vaccinated against Covid-19, refusing to order exemptions for 20 providers who say they object to the shot on religious grounds.

The rebuff, which came with no explanation, follows a similar rejection in a Maine case in October. Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, with Gorsuch suggesting New York Governor Kathy Hochul had acted out of anti-religious animus.

The orders come amid a cultural and political firestorm over Covid vaccine requirements. Republican-led states including Florida are moving to fine companies unless they let workers opt out, pushing back against President Joe Biden’s plan to require private employers to ensure workers are vaccinated or face federal occupational safety penalties.

A federal appeals court has put the Biden rules on hold, and that issue is likely to reach the Supreme Court soon as well.

New York is among a handful of states that require vaccinations for health-care workers without allowing a faith-based exemption. New York’s mandate, issued Aug. 26 by the Department of Health, requires health-care workers to be vaccinated if they are in close contact with patients, residents or other workers. The rule exempts people who have a medical reason for not getting vaccinated.

Two groups of doctors, nurses and other providers contend the mandate violates their constitutional rights. They say they are Christians opposed to the three available vaccines because they have links to cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. They told the court they either have already lost their jobs or will soon lose them.

The Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. mRNA vaccines were tested using a cell line that originated with an aborted fetus in the 1970s. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a different cell line during production and manufacturing. None of the vaccines contain aborted fetal cells.

‘Fear and Anger’

In an opinion for himself and Alito, Gorsuch faulted Hochul for comments she made defending the lack of an exemption. Among other remarks, Hochul said in September that people with religious objections to vaccine mandates “aren’t listening to God and what God wants.”

“Sometimes dissenting religious beliefs can seem strange and bewildering,” Gorsuch wrote. “In times of crisis, this puzzlement can evolve into fear and anger. It seems Governor Hochul’s thinking has followed this trajectory, and I suspect she is far from alone.”

Gorsuch said the case “practically exudes suspicion of those who hold unpopular religious beliefs.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office referred reporters to Hochul’s comments on Twitter.

“Our greatest responsibility is to protect our most vulnerable,” Hochul tweeted. “Ensuring that the health care workers who care for our loved ones are vaccinated is critical to keeping New Yorkers safe.”

New York told the justices its rule was warranted in light of the continuing threat posed by Delta variant of Covid-19. The state pointed to the risk that health-care workers could transmit the virus to vulnerable patients and residents or exacerbate staffing shortages by infecting colleagues.

The court acted in the case after weeks of deliberation. Justice Sonia Sotomayor previously let New York City require school employees to get shots.

The cases are We The Patriots USA v. Hochul, 21A125, and Dr. A. v. Hochul, 21A145.

(Updates with Hochul comments in 12th paragraph.)

--With assistance from Keshia Clukey.

To contact the reporter on this story:
Greg Stohr in Washington at gstohr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Elizabeth Wasserman at ewasserman2@bloomberg.net

Jon Morgan

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.