In a pair of cases decided on Monday, December 13, 2021, the Supreme Court declined to grant emergency relief to a group of 17 unnamed doctors, nurses, and other health care workers seeking to stop New York’s coronavirus vaccination mandate for health care workers. The cases are Dr. A. et al. v. Hochul and We The Patriots USA v. Hochul.
The New York workers claimed that since the mandate does not include an exception for religious objectors, they were being forced to choose between their livelihoods and their faith and that the requirement violated their right to free exercise of religion, arguing that “the availability of a medical exemption meant that the state was discriminating against religious practice.”
As is often the case in requests for emergency relief, the justices in the majority did not give a reason for declining the workers’ request. However, the Court’s ruling upholds the decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which noted in its opinion that the mandate, “on its face, does not bar an employer from providing an employee with a reasonable accommodation that removes the individual from the scope of the [mandate].” The Second Circuit, therefore, held that the mandate “does not require employers to violate Title VII because, although it bars an employer from granting a religious exemption from the vaccination requirement, it does not prevent employees from seeking a religious accommodation allowing them to continue working consistent with the [mandate], while avoiding the vaccination requirement.”
Title VII does not require employers to offer employees the accommodation that they prefer, but only an accommodation that is reasonable and that does not cause the employer undue hardship. In deciding whether to grant a religious accommodation in the context of a vaccination mandate, health care employers should consider the employee’s current job duties and requirements and whether such employee can be reasonably accommodated by removing the employee from the scope of the mandate (e.g., teleworking or transfer to a position that does not require contact with other employees, patients, or residents) without imposing an undue burden on the employer.
This decision marks the fourth time the Court has decided not to stop states from requiring vaccines. Last month the Court denied a similar request from a group of health care workers in Maine. Previously, Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected a request from a group of Indiana University students and Justice Sonia Sotomayor declined to halt a New York City mandate for public school teachers.