R.I. judge strikes down vaccination mandate challenge

Healthcare workers requested an order blocking the state mandate because it lacked a religious exemption


Katie Mulvaney
The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A federal judge on Thursday rejected healthcare workers' request for an order blocking the state COVID vaccination mandate from taking effect Friday because it doesn't explicitly include an exemption for employees based on religious concerns.

"The Court finds that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of these claims," U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy wrote Thursday in denying the healthcare workers' request for a temporary restraining order that would bar state health officials from enforcing the mandate, which could lead to the revocation or suspension of medical licenses for unvaccinated health-care professionals.

"As to the constitutional claims, courts have held for over a century that mandatory vaccination laws are a valid exercise of a state's police powers, and such laws have withstood constitutional challenges," McElroy continued, referring to a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case that upheld states' authority to enforce compulsory vaccines.

McElroy heard arguments in the case Wednesday. Joseph S. Larisa Jr. asserted at the virtual hearing that the mandate violated four anonymous healthcare workers' constitutional rights by prohibiting their employers from considering exempting them from being inoculated based on their "sincerely held religious beliefs."

Larisa alleged that the state regulation compelled the employers to disregard Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and as such violated the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits states from interfering with the federal government's exercise of its constitutional authority.

McElroy found, instead, that nothing in the state regulation's language "prevents any employer from providing a reasonable accommodation to an employee who seeks one in accord with their sincerely held religious beliefs. Indeed, the regulation is silent on the issue of religious exemptions."

She continued: "Title VII requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs, practices, or observances only to the extent that doing so would not impose `undue hardship' on the employer."

"While the regulation may make it more difficult for employers to accommodate religious objections; it does not create a 'physical impossibility,'" the judge said.

In conclusion, she said, no evidence presented to the court to date indicated that the healthcare workers would ultimately succeed on those claims.

The case was brought by healthcare workers "who wish to keep their identities anonymous to avoid harassment" and do not name their religion. They are refusing to get vaccinated based on the use of "aborted fetal cell lines" in the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines, according to the complaint.

The vaccines themselves do not contain aborted fetal cells, according to Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the state Department of Health.

And Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin has backed the vaccinations as "a very legitimate expression of our firm commitment to respect and protect human life." Pope Francis, too, has urged people to get vaccinated.

The state mandate, announced Aug. 17, directs that as of Oct. 1, healthcare facilities shall deny entrance to any healthcare workers who are not vaccinated unless they have received a medical exemption.

Workers can seek exemptions based on severe allergic reaction after a previous dose or due to a component of the vaccine; an immediate severe allergic reaction after a previous dose or known diagnosed allergy to a component of the vaccine; a history of myocarditis or pericarditis after a first dose or if they have received the monoclonal antibody treatment in the 90 days before Oct. 1.

Larisa argued unsuccessfully that if the state had a medical exemption that allowed unvaccinated healthcare professionals to wear a mask and be tested twice weekly, then it must provide similar accommodations on religious grounds. Two of his clients said they had been diagnosed with COVID and thus had "natural immunity."

Larisa on Wednesday requested that the case be treated as a preliminary injunction so a denial could easily be appealed. The state, represented by Assistant Attorney General Michael Field and Bruce Tedesco, for the Department of Health, objected, "citing the desire to further develop the factual record."

McElroy rejected Larisa's request, finding that the state would be "unduly prejudiced if not afforded" the opportunity to supplement its position.

Larisa could not be reached immediately Thursday. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Peter F. Neronha also did not respond to a request for comment.

Superior Court Judge Melissa E. Darigan on Tuesday struck down a request by the Rhode Island Association of Firefighters for an injunction barring the enforcement of the state's vaccine rule, which could lead to the suspension or revocation of EMT licenses for unvaccinated firefighters.
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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