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Judge says health care workers likely to win lawsuit over religious exemptions to the COVID vaccine

WRVO Public Media

New York will have to continue allowing health care workers to seek religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine, a federal judge in Utica wrote in a decision released early Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge David Hurd wrote that the plaintiffs, a handful of health care workers, were likely to win the case against the state in the long run, citing their argument for civil liberty.

“Plaintiffs have established that [the mandate] conflicts with longstanding federal protections for religious beliefs and that they and others will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of injunctive relief,” Hurd wrote.

It’s not the end of the case. In his decision, Hurd granted a preliminary injunction, which is basically a temporary hold on the state’s ability to prevent health care workers from seeking religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine.

The decision, first reported by New York NOW, does not strike down the mandate in full; it only allows health care workers to request religious exemptions to the mandate for the time being.

It’s possible that, as the case continues, that decision will be reversed. If that happens, health care workers would be required to get the vaccine, regardless of religious views, or lose their job.

The lawsuit was brought last month against the state by a handful of health care workers, who claimed the state was violating their religious liberties by disallowing faith-based exemptions to the vaccine.

Gov. Kathy Hochul has stood by the mandate, saying the risk posed by COVID-19 to the general public should outweigh religious claims from health care workers. That’s been the case in previous vaccine mandates, including on the state level.

Hochul, in a statement Tuesday afternoon, said the state would appeal Hurd's decision.

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

The state now has a few choices to sort through to continue that fight. It can either appeal Tuesday’s decision, granting the preliminary injunction, to a federal appellate court — or continue with the case at the trial level and hope it turns out in their favor.

Hurd wrote in the decision that the case would not go to trial, and would instead be decided on forthcoming filings from both sides of the litigation.

The timing of that is unclear. Litigation like this can come to a result quickly, in some cases, but it often takes weeks, or months, for a final resolution. And even then, the decision could be appealed and take months to sort out.

Dan Clark is the host and producer of New York NOW, a weekly television show focusing on state government produced by WMHT in Albany. Clark has been reporting on New York state government and politics for the last six years, during which time he's worked out of the state Capitol in Albany. Clark reported for the national political fact-checking publication PolitiFact, the Buffalo News, the statewide political television show Capital Tonight, and most recently the New York Law Journal. At the New York Law Journal, Clark has focused on state legal challenges to President Donald Trump, as well as litigation concerning laws enacted by the New York State Legislature. Clark covered the Legislature in each role he's held and is a familiar face to state lawmakers and staff. Clark is a native of Afton, NY in Chenango County. He's lived in Albany with his husband since 2011.