By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday declined to hear a challenge to New York’s mandate that healthcare sector workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 brought by a group of doctors, nurses and others who objected on religious grounds.
Turning away an appeal by 16 healthcare workers, the justices left in place a lower court ruling that rejected their claim that the mandate violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition against religious discrimination by the government. Most of the workers either resigned from their jobs, lost hospital admitting privileges or were fired for refusing the vaccine.
Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, dissented from the decision to deny the appeal.
The Supreme Court previously rejected other challenges to vaccine mandates including one focusing upon Maine’s lack of a religious exemption for healthcare workers.
New York’s Department of Health last Aug. 26 ordered healthcare professionals who come in contact with patients or other employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a safety measure during a pandemic that has killed more than a million Americans.
The state allows a narrow medical exemption for the small number of people with a serious allergic reaction to the COVID-19 vaccines.
The state has said that under the policy employers can consider religious accommodation requests and employees can be reassigned to jobs such as remote work. Healthcare workers in the state have also been subject to similar vaccine mandates measles and rubella, which also have no religious exemptions.
The dispute began when a group of doctors, nurses, therapists and other healthcare workers – mostly Catholics – sued in federal court under pseudonyms. Among the plaintiffs, three doctors lost admitting privileges, seven providers were fired or resigned, five chose to be vaccinated “under protest” and one eventually received a medical exemption.
Overall, nearly 37,000 New York healthcare workers either resigned, retired or were fired or furloughed for being unvaccinated, according to state data.
The plaintiffs have said they object to any COVID-19 vaccine whose testing or development relied on cell lines from aborted fetuses.
The COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States do not contain aborted fetal cells. Laboratory-grown cells that descended from the cells of an aborted fetus obtained decades ago were used in testing during the vaccine development process. The Vatican issued guidance to Catholics in 2020 that it is morally acceptable to use COVID-19 vaccines.
New York noted in a legal filing that use of such cell lines for testing is common, including for the rubella vaccination, which healthcare workers already take.
The Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a bid by the plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction, finding last November that the mandate neutrally applied to everyone and likely was not biased against religion.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)