Americans United joined the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and nine religious and interfaith organizations on Oct. 7 in urging 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 a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case We the Patriots USA, Inc. v. Hochul, the organizations made three important points:

• 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 health­care 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.

“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,” said Alex J. Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director of Americans United. “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.”

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.

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