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Court rules unvaccinated hospital workers can continue for now to claim religious exemption

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

New York state will have to temporarily continue to allow religious exemptions for health care workers who say their faith prevents them from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

A federal court ruling extends the moratorium on that portion of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s vaccine mandate for hospital workers until a full court proceeding can be held. 

The decision comes in response to a lawsuit filed by 17 health care workers. They say they should not have to obey Hochul’s order that all hospital workers were to be vaccinated by Sept. 27 because their religion prevents them from getting the shot.

The ruling, by U.S. District Judge David Hurd, who is based in Utica, says the health care workers who sued have raised a legitimate question of whether the state’s requirement conflicts with their federally protected right to seek religious accommodation from their employers.

Hochul has said she does not believe a religious exemption is a valid reason to not get the shot.

The court decision keeps the rest of the vaccine mandate in place. It only continues to allow for the health care workers to claim a religious exemption until the matter is fully settled in a trial.

Since the lawsuit was filed, Hochul has extended the vaccine mandate to other health care workers, including hospice care employees and home health care aides.

In a statement, Hochul says she plans to appeal the decision.

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

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.