In-Depth: Federal judge says NYS cannot deny religious exemptions to health care workers, but tells the state it may appeal

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — There is some relief for hundreds of health care workers. Their jobs — for now — are safe.

A federal judge ruled the state vaccine mandate cannot deny religious exemptions for those health care industry workers.

News10NBC Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "With this ruling, it pretty much saves your job, right?"

Dawn Fox, nurse with religious exemption: "Yes, it sure does."

Dawn Fox is part-time nurse in the birthing center at Unity Hospital and a born-again Christian.

She got a religious exemption to the COVID-19 vaccine just before the mandate kicked in.

Brean: "And what does that mean for you and your family?"

Fox: "It’s a big relief. This is not my main income but a lot of co-workers and a lot of my close friends, this is their livelihood and I am really relieved for them."

URMC said it granted about 300 to 400 religious exemptions since mid-September.

Rochester Regional Health has not shared its number.

In his order Tuesday, federal Judge David Hurd said, "there is no adequate explanation from (the state) about why the ‘reasonable accommodation’ that must be extended to a medically exempt healthcare worker" like testing and masking "could not similarly be extended to a healthcare worker with a sincere religious objection."

He wrote that would not increase harm to patients "especially when (doctors and nurses) have been on the front lines of stopping COVID for the past 18 months while donning PPE."

"Here’s the essence of it: These people were working with personal protective equipment for 18 months, throughout the pandemic," said Christopher Ferrara, Special Counsel Thomas More Society who lead the lawsuit against the state mandate. "And then suddenly with the doctrine of this vaccine mandate, they become disease-carrying villains who are to be cast into outer darkness because they won’t take a vaccine that violates their religious beliefs. It’s a policy that can only be described as ridiculous."

The order says the state can’t deny religious exemptions and can’t punish an employee who gets one or a hospital that approves one. The order said the issue of public health is so important it might be appropriate for the state to appeal and Gov. Kathy Hochul promised to do that on Tuesday.

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

The decision puts the burden back on hospitals and nursing homes that have to approve or deny the claims.

Typically, employers don’t focus on the religion, they focus on the burden of running the business.

The courts have said people have a right to religious accommodations as long as they don’t create an undue burden on the business.

"And courts have defined undue burden in this context to mean essentially anything that’s more than a minimal burden," said Jared Cook, attorney at Vahey Law Offices in Rochester.

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In his ruling on religious exemptions, Judge Hurd wrote the word "sincere" five times.

Brean: "How does an employer determine whether a claim is sincere or not?"

Jared Cook: "Yeah, it’s a good question and can be a tricky issue. In most cases, employers are most likely to focus on the undue burden aspect. And they’re more likely to say – look I’m not going to get into whether your beliefs are sincere. You say they are. We’ll accept that but it’s going to put too much of a burden on our business so we’re not going to grant that request for that reason."

In his court ruling, Judge Hurd wrote, "religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection."