On Tuesday October 12, 2021, two New York federal judges issued rulings related to the enforcement of vaccine mandates in New York.

Judge David Hurd of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York ruled in favor of health care workers seeking religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates by prohibiting health care facility employers from enforcing vaccine mandates without considering religious exemptions. The ruling comes after seventeen health care workers sued the New York State Department of Health based on an emergency regulation requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.  The regulation requires most healthcare workers to be vaccinated and did not allow employers to consider religious exemptions.  On September 14, 2021 Judge Hurd issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) forbidding employers from categorically denying or revoking religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates.  The TRO was extended to  October 12,2021.

In yesterday’s ruling, Judge Hurd converted the existing TRO to a preliminary injunction, continuing to prevent the State of New York from enforcing vaccine mandates for those health care workers who claim a religion-based exemption.  In his ruling, Judge Hurd stated that “[t]he Department of Health is barred from taking any action, disciplinary or otherwise, against the licensure, certification, residency, admitting privileges or other professional status or qualification of any of the plaintiffs on account of their seeking or having obtained a religious exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.”

Simultaneously, Judge Valerie Caproni of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied a request for a preliminary injunction brought by a group of ten teachers.  New York City’s vaccine mandate requires all public-school employees to be vaccinated, but provides for religious exemptions.  In declining to block enforcement of New York City’s vaccine mandate, Judge Caproni stated that the teachers failed to show that the city was “openly hostile” toward certain religious beliefs and did not show animus.

Impacted employers are encouraged to review and update existing policies and procedures, and implement any required policies and procedures, to ensure compliance with their obligations to afford religious exemptions.  We will keep you informed of further developments pertaining to the vaccine mandate and approved exemptions. In the meantime, Murtha Cullina’s attorneys are prepared to provide guidance on these and related issues.