A federal appellate court has ruled partially in favor of 15 Department of Education (DOE) employees who sued New York City over being denied religious exemptions to the city’s COVID vaccination mandate for public workers.
The Second Circuit of Appeals ruling issued November 28th will allow the plaintiffs — all teachers and school administrators — to resubmit their applications for religious exemptions to the city.
Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered all DOE employees to have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine by September 27th in an attempt to prevent infections and keep schools open for in-person learning this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends "all teachers, staff and eligible students be vaccinated as soon as possible."
Unions brought legal challenges that required the city to create exemptions for medical or religious reasons for DOE employees who would then work outside of school settings. The U.S. Supreme Court decided to not hear a similar case brought by New York City teachers, given the longstanding legal precedent for vaccine mandates. Anyone whose requests for exemptions were rejected would be put on unpaid leave.
The Second Circuit ruling reiterates that the vaccination mandate itself is not unconstitutional: “Attempting to safely reopen schools amid a pandemic that has hit New York City particularly hard, the City decided, in accordance with CDC guidance, to require vaccination for all DOE staff as an emergency measure. This was a reasonable exercise of the State’s power to act to protect the public health,” the decision said.
But the ruling agreed that the way the DOE’s arbitrators judged religious exemption applications under its "accommodation standards" was “constitutionally suspect.”
“Denying religious accommodations based on the criteria outlined in the accommodation standards, such as whether an applicant can produce a letter from a religious official, is not narrowly tailored to serve the government’s interest in preventing the spread of COVID-19,” the ruling said.
Michael Kane, a Queens special education teacher who was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said the ruling was “a big victory.”
“So now the named plaintiffs get to reapply again,” Kane told WNYC/Gothamist in a phone interview. “We don't really have confirmation that this process is also constitutional or not, but we're going to reapply.”
Kane applied for the religious exemption based on what he called a “hybrid” faith. “Mine is a hybrid that I see overlap with Christianity and Buddhism,” Kane said.
His application was rejected, and he was placed on unpaid leave. Kane said of the vaccine mandate that “this has nothing to do with public health. This is all political.”
“You can't say one person's belief is superior to another. That's not how our country was founded,” he added.
A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department said the ruling actually upholds the vaccination mandate while allowing the 15 DOE employees to reapply for exemptions, and could possibly be extended to more DOE employees who had their religious exemptions denied. The DOE did not respond to repeated requests for the number of employees who had their religious exemption applications denied or how many employees were put on unpaid leave.
“The court rightly recognized that our employee vaccination mandate is valid and a rational response to these challenging times. As to the plaintiffs' as-applied claims, this is a narrow ruling that simply affords the plaintiffs an additional process, as the City itself had proposed. The City is also making a similar process available to the small number of affected employees. We look forward to addressing the matter further in the district court,” Law Department spokesperson Nick Paolucci said in a statement.
The United Federation of Teachers union said they were discussing the decision’s implications for its membership.
"We are in discussions with the city to ensure that the rights of all UFT members potentially affected by this decision are protected," a UFT spokesperson said in a statement.
De Blasio ultimately expanded the vaccination mandate to include all city agencies. On Monday, the largest police union filed a lawsuit against the NYPD arguing the department is not fairly handling the 6,500 requests for medical or religious exemptions, the Daily News reported.