SCOTUS Declines Emergency Relief for NY Health Care Workers

Dec 13, 2021

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court refused 6-3 to grant a request for emergency relief for health care workers to allow religious exemptions for the state’s COVID shot mandate. Liberty Counsel filed an amicus brief in this case based on a pending case in a New York District Court.

In Dr. A, et al., v. Hochul, 17 health care workers, doctors, nurses, a medical technician, and a physician’s liaison residing in New York filed a lawsuit against New York Governor Kathy Hochul, former New York State Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard A. Zucker and New York Attorney General Letitia James over the state’s unlawful COVID-19 shot mandate.

Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch dissented. In his dissent Justice Gorsuch wrote, “The new Governor announced that the decision to eliminate the exemption was ‘intentional’ and justified because no ‘organized religion’ sought it and individuals who did were not ‘listening to God and what God wants.’ Now thousands of New York healthcare workers face the loss of their jobs and eligibility for unemployment benefits. Twenty of them have filed suit arguing that the State’s conduct violates the First Amendment and asking us to enjoin the enforcement of the mandate against them until this Court can decide their petition for certiorari. Respectfully, I believe they deserve that relief.”

Liberty Counsel filed an amicus brief at the High Court in support of these NY health care workers. The brief was filed on behalf of Liberty Counsel’s client referred to as “John Doe 1.” He is president of the board of a faith-based senior living facility in New York that has been in operation for 50 years and currently provides religious-based care to 15 residents. Doe and his employees are seeking religious exemptions from New York Gov. Hochul’s COVID shot mandate on health care workers. 

John Doe 1’s nursing home has one employee who received the COVID shots while the rest of the staff object to the shots based on their religious convictions. If John Doe 1 did not fire his employees who want religious exemptions by Monday, November 22, 2021, he would be subject to fines under the New York mandate. If he fires his staff, however, the nursing home will have to close, but state law forbids nursing homes from closing without relocating the residents, a move that would uproot the lives of people who are accustomed to the consistent and familiar surroundings and care they receive at Doe’s facility. Doe and his employees will neither violate their sincerely held religious beliefs nor unlawfully and immorally abruptly abandon their residents. 

On August 16, 2021, Gov. Hochul announced that the state will require health care workers to accept or receive one of the three COVID-19 injections to remain employed in the health care profession. The “Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccination Policy” applies to health care workers in all “hospitals, nursing homes, diagnostic and treatment centers, adult care facilities, certified home health agencies, hospices, long-term home health care programs, AIDS home care programs, licensed home care service agencies and limited licensed home care service agencies.” 

Although the Court denied emergency relief, the parties can now seek the High Court’s full review. In a similar case of Does 1-3 v. Mills, the Court denied emergency relief, and now Liberty Counsel has filed a petition for full review. That case is still pending. 

In addition to seeking full review, all health care workers wrongfully terminated may pursue a claim for damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which does allow for religious exemptions and accommodations. Damages can include back pay, lost pay, and reinstatement. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The New York mandate is a gross violation of the religious freedom of health care workers. There can be no dispute that New York is required to abide by federal law and the U.S. Constitution and provide protections to employees who have sincerely held religious objections to the COVID shots. Employers that wrongfully terminated employees who submitted religious exemption requests will face a day of reckoning under Title VII.” 

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