Thomas Gallatin / December 14, 2021

Vaccine Mandates and Religious Exemptions

SCOTUS rejects another chance to weigh in on states eliminating religious exemptions to COVID vaccine mandates.

In a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an emergency request brought by healthcare workers in New York objecting to that state’s vaccine mandate for medical workers that intentionally excludes religious exemptions. This is the second such emergency request rejected by the Court. Back in October, the justices rejected hearing a lawsuit brought by healthcare workers in Maine seeking religious exemption to their state’s vaccine mandate. What gives?

Similar to the Maine case, the healthcare workers in New York sought exemption from the COVID vaccine mandate based on their religious objection to abortion. The suit contended that “abortive-derived fetal cell lines” were used in developing the vaccines.

For its part, the state of New York claimed that the COVID vaccines themselves do not contain aborted fetal cells, but also acknowledged the “HEK-293 cells — which are currently grown in a laboratory and are thousands of generations removed from cells collected from a fetus in 1973 — were used in testing during the research and development phase of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.” The state also argued, “The use of fetal cell lines for testing is common, including for the rubella vaccination, which New York’s healthcare workers are already required to take.”

Furthermore, New York observed that Catholic leaders including Pope Francis have given their approval for receiving the COVID vaccines.

Writing for the Court’s three dissenting members, Justice Neil Gorsuch not only disagreed with the majority’s rejection of the case but further noted that he would have ruled against the state. He contended that New York’s actions show clear animus toward religion. “Even if one were to read the State’s actions as something other than signs of animus,” Gorsuch stated, “they leave little doubt that the revised mandate was specifically directed at the applicants’ unorthodox religious beliefs and practices.” He also highlighted the fact that several other states have been able to meet “COVID-19 public health goals without coercing religious objectors to accept a vaccine.”

The justice wasn’t done. Warning of the nature of political leaders to abuse emergencies for the “collective good,” Gorsuch alluded to wars: “Pandemics often produce demanding new social rules aimed at protecting collective interests — and with those rules can come fear and anger at individuals unable to conform for religious reasons.”

Gorsuch also blasted the majority for failing to address the issue, writing, “We should know the costs that come when this Court stands silent as majorities invade the constitutional rights of the unpopular and unorthodox.”

But it’s not all bad news when it comes to challenges to COVID vaccine mandates. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt recently announced, “The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Department of Justice’s motion for stay pending appeal in our lawsuit against the vaccine mandate on healthcare workers, meaning our injunction will stay in place.”

Moreover, thanks to shortages of nurses and other workers, as well as continued court setbacks for Biden’s mandate, many big hospital systems have dropped vaccine mandates. Not that long ago, nearly a third of healthcare workers remained unvaccinated.

Finally, while the Court has once again dodged weighing in on religious exemptions in relation to these COVID vaccine mandates, it seems that at some point the Court will eventually be forced to take up one of these cases. It’s apparent that some state leaders will continue to push against religious liberty rights at any opportunity that arises.

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