As thousands of healthcare professionals in New York state rushed to comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate that went into effect Monday, 17 Christian professionals who filed a lawsuit seeking religious exemptions earlier this month stood firm in their convictions — even under threat of losing their jobs.
The mandate requires that more than 600,000 workers in public and private hospitals and nursing homes were to receive their first dose of the vaccine by midnight Monday to continue working on Tuesday.
Religious liberty advocate group Thomas More Society is representing over a dozen workers, including Baptists and Catholics. In the lawsuit, the group argues New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who is also Catholic, is disrespecting and bullying medical workers with sincerely held religious beliefs against the COVID-19 vaccine.
"New York's Governor Hochul is using every strong-arm tactic she can to attempt to coerce employees into taking vaccines against their will," Thomas More Society Special Counsel Christopher Ferrara said in a statement Monday.
"She is also demonstrating disrespect, at a minimum, if not outright hostility to the deeply held religious convictions of our clients as well as thousands of others. We have solid grounds for prevailing on our motion for a preliminary injunction."
Ferrara contends that Hochul is trying to "coerce as many as possible into taking the vaccine before the court rules."
"And now she threatens to declare a state of emergency she herself has created by calling for the firing of dedicated front line health care workers who treated patients for 18 months without being vaccinated – often contracting COVID, recovering, and returning to front line medical care – are now being depicted as disease-carrying villains," the lawyer said. "This is not science. This is demagoguery."
On Sept. 14, U.S. District Judge David Hurd issued an order to temporarily prevent New York's health department from rejecting employer-approved religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate. The order was extended on Sept. 20 and will last until Oct. 12. According to the legal group, Hurd canceled a hearing scheduled for Tuesday and will deliver a decision by Oct. 12.
Plaintiffs argue that the state's mandate, which allows a medical exemption, should also consider religious exemption requests.
"The seventeen plaintiffs in this action — practicing doctors, M.D.s fulfilling their residency requirement, nurses, a nuclear medicine technologist, a cognitive rehabilitation therapist and a physician's liaison — are united in their conscientious religious objection as Christians to being inoculated at all, much less 'continuously,' with any of the available COVID-19 vaccines because they all employ fetal cell lines derived from procured abortion in testing, development or production of the vaccines," said the lawsuit filed by Thomas More Society.
The Christian workers oppose abortion under any circumstances because they "believe that abortion is the intrinsically evil killing of an innocent."
Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, has not objected to the COVID-19 vaccines and has even urged adherents to take it. High-profile Protestant leaders such as Pastor Robert Jeffress, leader of the 12,000-member First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, also noted that there "there is no credible religious argument against" COVID-19 vaccines.
"Christians who are troubled by the use of a fetal cell line for the testing of the vaccines would also have to abstain from the use of Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, Ibuprofen, and other products that used the same cell line if they are sincere in their objection," Jeffress argued.
Hochul cited religious leaders' support for the vaccine in her fight against allowing religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.
"I'm not aware of a sanctioned religious exemption from any organized religion, in fact, they are encouraging the opposite," she argued this month. "Everybody from the Pope on down is encouraging people to get vaccinated."
On Sunday, in an appearance at the Brooklyn-based Christian Cultural Center, Hochul told congregants that vaccines against COVID-19 are God's answer to "our prayers." She urged them to become her apostles by encouraging others to get their shots.
"We are not through this pandemic. I wished we were, but I prayed a lot to God during this time, and you know what, God did answer our prayers. He made the smartest men and women the scientists, the doctors, the researchers. He made them come up with a vaccine. That is from God to us, and we must say, 'Thank you, God. Thank you,'" Hochul said.
"I need you to be my apostles. I need you to go out and talk about it and say, we owe this to each other. We love each other. Jesus taught us to love one another. How do you show that love but to care about each other enough to say, please get the vaccine because I love you, and I want you to live. I want our kids to be safe when they're in schools. I want to be safe when you go to a doctor's office or to a hospital and are treated by somebody. You don't want to get the virus from them. You're already sick or you wouldn't be there," she pleaded.
The medical workers seeking religious exemption in New York, however, disagree.
"They do not accept the opinion — expressed by certain other Catholic bishops, the Pope included — that there is a therapeutically proportional reason to resort to abortion-connected vaccines which can justify 'remote' cooperation in abortion," the lawsuit argues. "They reject as a matter of religious conviction any medical cooperation in abortion, no matter how 'remote.'"
"They believe in the primacy of conscience in this matter," the legal document adds. "While one may personally conclude that recourse to abortion-connected vaccines can be justified in his or her case, vaccination is not morally obligatory and must be voluntary, and those who in conscience refuse vaccination need only take other protective measures to avoid spreading the virus."
The lawsuit further notes that the medical workers were not alone in rejecting the vaccine in the religious community.
"They agree with the teaching of spiritual leaders, including certain Catholic bishops, who urge Christians to refuse said vaccines to avoid cooperation in abortion and to bear witness against it without compromise, and who defend the right to a religious exemption from vaccination with such vaccines," it said.
The Christian medical workers whose identities are protected in court papers made it clear in their lawsuit that they are not "anti-vaxxers" who oppose all vaccines, but "believe as a matter of religious conviction that the ensouled human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is inviolable as a temple of the Holy Ghost."
They also pointed to the potential side effects of the vaccines and "their fading efficacy, requiring 'booster shots,' their evident inability to prevent transmission or infection, and the fact that natural immunity is likely more protective than injections with the available COVID-19 vaccines."
"These medical facts inform Plaintiffs' religious conviction against involuntary or coerced vaccination as an invasion of bodily autonomy contrary to their religious beliefs," the plaintiffs argued. "Given that the Vaccine Mandate requires that employers ensure that employees are 'continuously' 'fully vaccinated' — as many times as the government advises — Plaintiffs now reasonably fear that 'booster shots' of the same vaccines they consider immoral will soon be demanded by the government as a condition of employment and even normal life in society, as is already the case with the original vaccines."