Sotomayor Rejects Challenge to COVID Vaccine Mandate for NYC Public Sector Workers

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has rejected a bid that would prevent New York City from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for municipal workers against a group of teachers, firefighters and others who challenged the policy.

As reported by Reuters, Justice Sotomayor denied the emergency request, received by the court on Nov. 5, to block the policy by individual municipal workers along with a group known as New Yorkers for Religious Liberty, while their appeal of lower court decisions siding with the city proceeds.

Consisting of public schoolteachers, firefighters, sanitation workers and law enforcement officers, the group contended that, while New York City’s vaccine mandate nominally provides for individualized religious exemptions, those accommodations are “made on an arbitrary basis.”

The workers also claimed that New York City’s policy “runs afoul of religious protections by forcing workers to choose between their jobs or taking the vaccine in violation of their religious beliefs,” wrote Reuters’ Andrew Chung. The plaintiffs also claimed that forcing them to take the vaccine is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment bar on religious discrimination.

Sotomayor, who is the justice designated by the court to act on emergency matters arising from New York and certain other states, has repeatedly turned back challenges to New York City's vaccine mandate, including the effort of one police detective who challenged the policy, as well as a group of public school teachers and employees who sought to stop the vaccination mandate in 2021.

Also among the plaintiffs’ claims is “opposition to any COVID-19 vaccine whose testing or development relied on cell lines from aborted fetuses,” wrote The Hill’s John Kruzel, adding that COVID-19 vaccines in the United States do not contain aborted fetal cells.

The group filing this suit has now challenged the city in three lawsuits, but federal judges ruled against them in August, wrote Kruzel, noting that the Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2022 denied an injunction pending appeal in the cases.

George Chuzi, a Washington, D.C.-based partner with Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, describes Justice Sotomayor’s response to the petition as “consistent with the Court’s response to virtually all requests to block the COVID vaccine mandate, particularly for healthcare workers.”

In January 2022, in fact, the Court denied challenges to the decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to require the vaccination of all healthcare workers at facilities receiving federal funds, added Chuzi, who represents both private and public sector employees.

According to the Court, such “unprecedented circumstances” do not provide grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have, he said, noting that the only instance in which the Court denied the government’s efforts to institute a vaccine mandate was in a challenge by federal contractors to a Department of Labor rule.

Ultimately, the fact that the plaintiffs’ objection in this case was based on religion “should not make a difference,” said Chuzi. “Courts have repeatedly noted that none of the major religions in the United States have objected to the COVID vaccine, leaving employees to invoke their ‘personal’ beliefs.”

That said, “virtually all” of these employees have acknowledged that they have routinely received other vaccinations during their lives, “with the result that courts have given greater weight to the public health than to personal objections, particularly for employees who must interact with the public and those with compromised immune systems.”

And, while the Court’s consideration of religious liberty has shifted recently from the First Amendment’s establishment clause to its free exercise clause, “it does not appear ready to allow ‘personal beliefs’ to override public health emergencies,” concluded Chuzi, “such as those experienced during the COVID pandemic.”

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