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Two lawsuits seeking religious exemptions to vaccine mandates saw differing outcomes

One New York federal judge found in favor of a group of health care workers who sought to avoid the Covid-19 vaccine for religious reasons. Another ruled against NYC educators seeking a similar religious exemption.

(CN) — Judge Valerie Caproni warned her courtroom that anyone whose mask slipped below their nose would be subject to removal by court security, then told a group of New York City educators seeking religious exemptions for the Covid-19 vaccine they were unlikely to succeed on their claims.

Ruling from the bench Tuesday, the Southern District of New York judge denied the educators’ request for a preliminary injunction, in which they argued comments from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and the process for obtaining exemptions display a clear animus toward their religious beliefs.

After looking over the news articles the educators attached as exhibits in the case, Caproni, an Obama appointee, said there was “not even a whiff of anti-religious animus” in the statements of de Blasio and New York Governor Kathy Hochul.

The educators, Caproni said, have “not shown they are entitled to this extraordinary remedy.”

Meanwhile, on the same day, a federal judge for the Northern District of New York arrived at a different conclusion for a group of health care workers seeking religious exemptions from a state statute requiring health care workers to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19. This group of 17 workers argued that some of the vaccines were developed with the help of a cell line originally taken from an aborted fetus decades ago.

Challenging the vaccination mandate, the group asked Judge David Hurd, a Clinton appointee, to convert the temporary restraining order they obtained in September into a preliminary injunction.

Hurd granted the request.

Because they were able to show the state updated its vaccine mandate to chip away at religious accommodations in late August, Hurd said the health care workers established the mandate was not neutral and they had a likelihood of success in proving at least one of their constitutional claims.

The “question is whether the state’s summary imposition of [the vaccine mandate] conflicts with plaintiffs’ and other individuals’ federally protected right to seek a religious accommodation from their individual employers,” Hurd wrote in his 27-page decision. “The answer to this question is clearly yes.”

Hurd barred state officials from enforcing the mandate in a way that eliminates or revokes health care workers’ religious exemptions. His order also instructed the New York State Department of Health not to discipline health care workers who obtain religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.

Noting that his decision triggers an immediate appeal, Hurd said an appellate court may have a different view of the situation.

Indeed, Governor Hochul said in a statement that she looks forward to an ongoing legal battle over the vaccination mandate for health care workers.

“My responsibility as governor is to protect the people of this state,” Hochul said, “and requiring health care workers to get vaccinated accomplishes that. I stand behind this mandate, and I will fight this decision in court to keep New Yorkers safe.”

The twin decisions are only the latest in the courts’ deliberations over litigation surrounding vaccine mandates designed to quell the Covid-19 pandemic. In late September, the Second Circuit granted a group of New York educators’ request for an injunction halting the requirement that they prove they received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, only to reverse course three days later. 

The 10 educators whose request for an injunction was denied Tuesday had also lost their request for an emergency restraining order against the largest school district in the nation on Oct. 5. Though the vaccination mandate was announced in August during the build-up for a return back to school, the educators waited until Sept. 21 to bring their complaint to the courthouse, the judge had ruled.

The educators’ attorney, Sujata Gibson, called no witnesses during the hearing because she said they would reiterate what they had said in declarations already filed with the court. Judge Caproni said she had already read the documents.

Gibson pointed to several news articles saying the vaccine mandate for teachers was handed down with a “flurry of hostile statements” that made it seem only established religions — all of which have not prohibited the use of Covid-19 vaccines — would be granted accommodations. 

But Caproni was not impressed by the evidence before her, pointing out that some of de Blasio’s comments seemed to be saying there won’t be large carve-outs for religious exemptions.

“I’m having a hard time getting from that to hostility to religion,” Caproni said.

At the end of the hearing, Lora Minicucci of the New York City Law Department moved to dismiss the educators’ claim.

Caproni told Gibson to submit a brief addressing whether the educators even had standing to bring the suit, and she urged Gibson to do a better job with it than what she had submitted so far.

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