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Religious objections, labor shortages, and protests highlight the challenge to vaccine mandates

Vaccine protest
=David Sommerstein
A rally against the state vaccine mandate for medical workers in Potsdam. So-called "medical freedom" rallies have been organized around the North Country by at least two different groups.

At 46%, Lewis County has the lowest vaccination rate in the North Country and among the lowest state-wide. The mostly rural community recently became a national focal point for anti-vaccination sentiment.

Lewis County General Hospital in Lowville announced it could no longer operate its maternity ward after six staff resigned in opposition to a state vaccine mandate for healthcare workers.

Under a rule issued by the state Department of Health, all medical workers in New York State must be vaccinated by Sept. 27, or face termination from their job.

Lewis County hospital CEO Gerald Cayer told NCPR that the vaccine issue was the breaking point for an already stressed system. He identified the root problem as a pre-existing shortage of skilled medical workers.

“There's a significant health workforce challenge in New York State, particularly north of the thruway,” Cayer noted, adding that fact has been overshadowed by discussions of the vaccine mandate.

Cayer still supports the mandate and notes that roughly 80% of staff have already been vaccinated. He said hospital management continues to work with staff to try and convince everyone to get a shot.

The hospital is also working to bring in new staff and plans to resume delivery services as soon as possible. The maternity ward is currently set to cease operations at the end of the week.

Opposition to mandates

Protests against mandates, like the one declared for healthcare workers, have appeared across the North Country, from Watertown to Saranac Lake.

Participants billed the events as “medical freedom” rallies. Many in attendance are not healthcare workers themselves, but say they support medical staff who oppose mandatory vaccination.

Around 100 people attended a recent rally in Potsdam organized by a group called Frontline Defense. One of the attendees was Danielle Robar, a Registered Nurse at Canton/Potsdam Hospital.

“They took away our religious exemption, which was my plan at first,” Robar told NCPR. “And now on Sept. 27, I’m gonna lose my job.”

State health authorities removed any religion-based exemptions to the healthcare worker mandate, which will go into effect next Monday.

The lack of exemption for religious objections prompted a lawsuit by 17 anonymous medical staff, ranging from doctors to technicians, who say that is a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.

The group is being represented by the Thomas More Society, a non-profit law firm that often litigates cases involving conservative social issues.

Steve Crampton is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case against New York State’s mandate. He argues that lack of provision for religious objections to the mandate violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“The state has no authority to set aside federal law like the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Crampton said in an interview.

He describes the 17 healthcare workers suing the state as anti-abortion Christians, which forms the basis of their objection to complying with the mandate.

“The issue for them is the way that these vaccines, all of them that are now available in the US, have been developed by the use of either the testing, or the development itself, in which they use aborted baby tissue,” Crampton explained.

Murky ethical issues

None of the three vaccines available in the United States contain aborted fetal cells in their final form.

Fetal cells were used during the testing and development process of the mRNA vaccines created by Pfizer and Moderna. Neither inoculation uses fetal cells for large-scale manufacturing.

However, the single-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine does require fetal cell cultures for production. That led some officials in the Catholic Church to advise parishioners against receiving that particular vaccine.

In the case of all three vaccines, the fetal cells used were derived from two abortions performed in the past, one in 1973 and the other in 1985.

Multiple faith and anti-abortion organizations, including Catholics and Southern Baptists, have signed off on at least some of the vaccines.

A written finding from The Vatican states that it is “morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote that receiving the Pfizer and Moderna shots is “morally justified” and does not represent cooperation in abortion.

However, non-Catholics may not be swayed by those declarations and they may yet get their way.

A federal judge in Utica recently ruled that the state must temporarily allow religious exemptions to its healthcare worker mandate, until a final decision is reached.

How religious exemptions would work

Attorney Steve Crampton says the plaintiffs in the healthcare worker case would be satisfied if the blanket ban on religious exemptions were removed, thereby allowing employers were allowed to evaluate individual requests.

He argues those requests can be handled under existing equal employment opportunity laws.

During a recent event organized by the North Country Chamber of Commerce, Plattsburgh labor attorney Jacqueline Keleher said that setting a standard for what constitutes a “sincerely held religious belief” would ultimately be left up to each employer.

“You're going to have to make a choice about how much information, how hard will we push, to determine if this is a genuine religious exemption. There's no clear and easy answer to that,” Keleher said.

Even if a religious exemption to vaccination is granted, Keleher noted that employers can still require alternative measures like masking and regular testing in lieu of a vaccine.

Hochul doubles down

Although the state’s ban on religious exemptions was temporarily thrown out, Gov. Kathy Hochul made it clear she plans to fight for its restoration.

At a recent briefing on COVID-19, the country’s newest governor did not mince words in laying out her opposition to any kind of religious exemption.

“We left off that in our regulations intentionally. And we’re hoping that we’ll make overwhelmingly persuasive arguments in favor of letting the state of New York do what is necessary to protect the public health,” Hochul said emphatically.

In addition to challenging the initial judicial ruling, the state also has the option to request the court reveal the names of the 17 healthcare workers who signed on as plaintiffs.

Multiple state agencies and the governor’s office declined to comment on whether or not the state’s attorneys would pursue that course. Oral arguments from both sides will be heard on Sept. 28.

Meanwhile, the vaccine mandate for New York healthcare workers will still take effect on Monday, Sept. 27, with religious exemptions in place.

Ryan Finnerty is producer on Hawaii Public Radio's local public affairs talk show The Conversation where he reports on local and state politics, business, economics, science, and the environment. Before coming to Hawaii Public Radio, Ryan was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed at Schofield Barraks on Oahu. He graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in economics.