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Supreme Court again leaves state vaccine mandate in place for health care workers

J. Scott Applewhite

The U.S. Supreme Court has turned away a challenge to New York state's vaccine mandate for health care workers — a mandate that provides no exceptions for religious objectors. The vote was 6-3.

This was the second time the court has refused to block such a state vaccine mandate for health care workers. As in an earlier case from Maine, New York provides only one exemption from the mandate, and that is a narrow medical exemption for those who have suffered a severe allergic reaction after a previous dose of the vaccine or a component of the COVID-19 vaccine.

That is the standard recommended by the CDC after finding that vaccines are safe for immunocompromised people, pregnant women and people with underlying conditions.

The six-justice majority included the court's three liberals and three of its conservative justices, too — Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Chief Justice John Roberts.

They wrote no opinion, simply turning aside an emergency request asking the court to block the law.

New York, like Maine before it, argued that the whole purpose of the mandate is to require high levels of compliance in order to protect patients from contagion and to stanch the pandemic as new variants arise.

The effectiveness of broad mandates like this are perhaps best illustrated by a spreadsheet provided by the city of New York. It shows that before the mandate 60% of those working for the Fire Department were vaccinated. As of this week, the percentage was 94%.

In its brief, the state noted that the COVID-19 vaccination rules are the same as preexisting vaccine requirements for measles and rubella that have been in effect for decades.

The state agreed that where possible, federal law requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religious objectors, but it noted that does not require employers to offer objectors their preferred accommodation — namely a blanket religious exemption allowing them to continue working at their current positions unvaccinated.

Dissenting were Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito. Gorsuch, writing for himself and Alito, maintained that religious objectors are ineligible for unemployment compensation and that the state mandate "exudes suspicion of those who hold unpopular religious beliefs."

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.