For now, New York healthcare employers that are subject to the Department of Health’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate will not face state enforcement actions for considering and/or granting employee requests for religious exemptions.
On October 12, 2021, U.S. District Court Judge David N. Hurd issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the Governor, the Commissioner of Health and the New York State Attorney General from taking enforcement action against any healthcare employer that considers and/or grants employee requests for religious exemptions from the state-mandated COVID-19 vaccine. This preliminary injunction, which replaces Judge Hurd’s earlier temporary restraining order, indirectly confirms that covered healthcare employers must, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), give due consideration to employee requests for religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate, including considering whether available accommodations are “reasonable” and do not impose an undue burden on the employer. While New York State may ask the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse this holding, it should be noted that several recent appeals based on similar fact patterns have failed.
Importantly, this decision does not require employers that are subject to the vaccine mandate to grant all requests for religious exemptions or to reinstate previously-issued exemptions that were revoked for legitimate business reasons. Rather, the preliminary injunction paves the way for healthcare employers to comply with their existing Title VII legal obligations without facing the threat of state enforcement actions, as summarized in a previous Hancock Alert. In other words, the ruling confirms that employers should not simply deny requests for religious exemptions but, rather, should comply with Title VII by considering all such requests and engaging in an interactive process to determine whether (i) a request is based on a sincerely held religious belief, and (ii) a reasonable accommodation can be provided without placing an undue burden on the employer. Notably, the preliminary injunction does not address exactly what accommodations are or are not reasonable. To be sure, each situation will require an individual assessment based on the specific employee and employer. Employers should consult with qualified legal counsel when addressing these issues.