On August 26, 2021, the New York State Department of Health’s Public Health and Health Planning Council approved temporary emergency regulations implementing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for personnel in all entities licensed under Article 28 of the Public Health Law (including nursing homes, hospitals, and diagnostic and treatment centers), home care agencies licensed or certified under Article 36, hospice programs licensed under Article 40 and adult care facilities licensed under Article 7 of the Social Services Law. Notably, the final version of the approved emergency regulations removed the religious exemption that was present in the initial proposed version. As a result, health care workers were required to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by September 27 — and personnel at other covered entities to receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by October 7 — unless a medical exemption is granted. On September 13, 2021, several doctors and nurses who allege that their sincere religious beliefs compel them to refuse COVID-19 vaccination, filed suit (Dr. A, et al. v. Kathy Hochul, et al.) claiming the New York State Department of Health’s failure to recognize religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is unconstitutional. Plaintiffs sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction enjoining the Department of Health from enforcing the mandate.
Judge David N. Hurd granted Plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order on September 14, ruling that the state is temporarily prohibited from enforcing the vaccine mandate “to the extent it categorically requires health care employers to deny or revoke religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates.” On September 20, Judge Hurd extended the temporary restraining order through October 12. The court intends to issue an order on Plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction on or before that date. For now, covered health care entitles must provide exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate based on medical and religious reasons while the temporary restraining order remains in effect.
The ruling in this case will be one of the first to demonstrate courts’ willingness to decide whether public health and safety interests may override an employee’s sincerely-held religious beliefs, which employers typically must accommodate under Title VII and state law. We will continue to monitor developments in this case.