Oct 07, 2021

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and nine religious and interfaith organizations today urged a federal appellate court to protect public health and religious freedom by rejecting a request for harmful religious exemptions from a New York requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19.

In an amicus brief filed today in the case We the Patriots USA, Inc. v. Hochul, the organizations explained:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court recently and repeatedly has reaffirmed that religious freedom does not give religious objectors “general immunity from secular laws.”
  • A long line of court decisions makes clear that the Constitution does not require religious exemptions from vaccination mandates.
  • The medical exemption in New York’s law for people who cannot safely be vaccinated advances the law’s goal of protecting public health. Therefore, the existence of a medical exemption does not mean that the state must also grant religious exemptions. The brief cites examples of health care providers and other large employers in California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Kentucky, New Jersey and Washington State where requests for religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination requirements vastly outnumbered requests for medical exemptions – illustrating that religious exemptions are much more likely than medical exemptions to threaten public health and undermine the state’s goal of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director of Americans United: “Religious freedom is a fundamental right that ensures that we are all treated equally under the law and allowed to live and believe as we choose – as long as we don’t harm others. Religious freedom doesn’t provide immunity from life-threatening diseases or from laws that are meant to protect everyone equally. The court should uphold New York’s vaccination requirements because they protect health care workers and the vulnerable patients they serve.”

Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief: “Religious liberty is an essential constitutional right, but it does not force states to offer religious exemptions that would jeopardize the health and lives of healthcare workers and their vulnerable patients.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union: “For years the Courts have allowed vaccine mandates when essential to protect the public health. The highly infectious and deadly COVID-19 virus has wrought incalculable pain and loss in New York that warrant this extraordinary measure, particularly for frontline medical workers. As vaccine mandates become more widespread It is essential that the state step up efforts to make sure that vaccines are actually available and accessible to the poorest and most medically vulnerable communities.”

The other organizations joining the brief are Central Conference of American Rabbis; Global Justice Institute, Metropolitan Community Churches; Men of Reform Judaism; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Muslim Advocates; National Council of Jewish Women; Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association; Union for Reform Judaism; and Women of Reform Judaism.

The amicus brief in We the Patriots v. Hochul is available here.

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at www.au.org.

For more than100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, we take up the toughest civil liberties fights. Beyond one person, party, or side — we the people dare to create a more perfect union. Learn more at aclu.org