gavel on desk

A federal judge on Tuesday granted a temporary restraining order blocking New York state from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for healthcare workers, including workers in assisted living communities, saying their constitutional rights were violated.

Judge David Hurd in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York issued the order prohibiting the New York State Department of Health from requiring healthcare employers to deny religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The suit was filed Monday by Chicago-based Thomas More Society on behalf of 17 healthcare professionals who allege their religious beliefs compel them to refuse the vaccines. The group filed civil rights claims against Gov. Kathy Hochul, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and New York Attorney General Letitia James, alleging that the mandates violate their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, the Supremacy Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

LeadingAge New York said it is aware of two other pending court cases on this matter, including one in which a temporary restraining order was not issued. The association indicated that it is analyzing the legal developments and will provide more information to members soon.

The order prevents the Empire State from enforcing any requirement that employers deny religious exemptions or revoking any exemptions already granted. The order also bars the state from taking any action against licensure, certification, residency, admitting privileges or other professional status of the plaintiffs for seeing or obtaining a religious exemption. 

“This order does not suspend the vaccine mandate, but it temporarily bars the Department of Health from enforcing the mandate where individuals have claims for religious exemption,” Hazel Crampton-Hays, press secretary to Hochul, told “We are considering all of our legal options to keep our communities safe.”

The state has until Sept. 22 to respond to the lawsuit in federal court in Utica. If the state opposes a request for a preliminary court order blocking the vaccine mandate, an oral hearing will be held Sept. 28.

The state issued the order Aug. 28 requiring at least the first shot for healthcare workers in hospitals and nursing homes by Sept. 27, and for workers in private practices and other covered healthcare settings, including assisted living communities, to receive a vaccine by Oct. 9. 

The lawsuit is similar to one filed against several senior living and care organizations and the state of Maine over that state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers, including those in senior living. Maine’s mandate calls for healthcare workers to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 and also does not provide for religious exemptions. That suit was filed by Liberty Counsel of Orlando, FL, which is representing more than 2,000 healthcare workers.