The US Supreme Court on Monday refused to block New York’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus even when they cite religious objections.

As is often the court’s practice in rulings on emergency applications, its unsigned order included no reasoning. But Justice Neil M. Gorsuch filed a 14-page dissent saying that the majority had betrayed the court’s commitment to religious liberty.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined Justice Gorsuch’s dissent. Justice Clarence Thomas also said he would have blocked the vaccine requirement, but he gave no reasons.

According to the New York Times, the  Supreme Court in October refused to provide relief to health care workers in Maine who had made an essentially identical request in a challenge to a similar state requirement, over the dissents of the same three justices.

The court has also rejected challenges to vaccination requirements at Indiana University, for personnel in New York City’s school system and for workers at a Massachusetts hospital. The court also rejected a challenge to a federal mandate requiring masks for air travel.

Those rulings were all issued by only one justice, which can be a sign that the legal questions involved were not considered substantial. But those rulings did not involve religion.

Cases challenging President Biden’s vaccine mandates affecting the private sector may soon reach the court as well. Challenges to the mandates — for federal contractors, health care workers and companies with more than 100 employees — are pending in lower courts.

In his dissent on Monday in the case from New York, Justice Gorsuch wrote that the practical consequences of the court’s decision would be grave.

“Thousands of New York health care workers face the loss of their jobs and eligibility for unemployment benefits,” he wrote.

“These applicants are not ‘anti-vaxxers’ who object to all vaccines,” Justice Gorsuch added. “Instead, the applicants explain, they cannot receive a Covid-19 vaccine because their religion teaches them to oppose abortion in any form, and because each of the currently available vaccines has depended upon abortion-derived fetal cell lines in its production or testing.”

“The Free Exercise Clause protects not only the right to hold unpopular religious beliefs inwardly and secretly,” he wrote. “It protects the right to live out those beliefs publicly.”

New York State estimates that about 4 percent of its health care work force — or 37,000 workers — have left their jobs as a result of the vaccine mandate, which was issued by Gov. Kathy C. Hochul on Aug. 26 and went into effect about a month later. Because of the pending court cases, workers who had requested religious exemptions were permitted to work until Nov. 22, but then had to get vaccinated, go on leave or resign.

Ms. Hochul has since declared a state of emergency in light of a serious shortage of medical workers in upstate New York exacerbated by these job losses. She has called the National Guard to assist in short-staffed nursing homes as coronavirus cases increase. It is unclear how many of these workers left specifically for religious reasons, but state data shows that about 4,000 additional health care workers have left or been placed on leave for being unvaccinated since the ban on religious exemptions went into effect.

The ruling from the Supreme Court came in a pair of challenges brought by doctors, nurses and other health care workers who said the requirement violated their right to the free exercise of religion. They argued that the availability of a medical exemption meant that the state was discriminating against religious practice, citing decisions of the Supreme Court striking down limits on religious gatherings that the justices in the majority said were more restrictive than ones imposed on secular gatherings.

A federal judge in Brooklyn ruled against the challengers in the case before him, but another federal judge, in Utica, N.Y., ruled for the challengers in a second case.

U.S. nears 800,000 Covid deaths. The United States is on the cusp of surpassing 800,000 deaths from the virus, and no group has suffered more than older Americans. Seventy-five percent of people who have died in the U.S. have been 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus.

The Omicron variant. The latest Covid-19 variant, which has been detected in dozens of countries, seems to dull the power of the Pfizer vaccine, but the company said its boosters offer significant protection. Omicron appears to spread rapidly, though it may be less severe than other forms of the virus.

 

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