Vaccine mandate for NY health care workers faces legal challenges with federal court appeals panel

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NEW YORK (WABC) -- New York's vaccine mandate for health care workers faced another challenge in court Wednesday, with three nurses -- two of them from Long Island -- claiming their religious liberties were being infringed upon.

The local nurses, Diane Bono and Michelle Melendez, will be fired by their employer, Syosset Hospital, though they worked their shifts Tuesday night, attorney Cameron Atkinson said Wednesday during oral argument as he sought an injunction from the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals.

"My clients refuse to take a COVID-19 vaccination because they were either made or tested with cell lines artificially developed from aborted fetuses," Atkinson said. "And that goes against their religious beliefs having any part in that, no matter how remote it is."

Watch the full interview with attorney Cameron Atkinson
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Attorney Cameron Atkinson speaks out about representing nurses fighting NY's vaccine mandate.


The lawyer's third plaintiff, Michelle Synakowski, who is employed by St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, "has had her religious objection reinstated per the northern districts order but she also works within the northern districts jurisdiction," Atkinson said.

A federal judge in Utica had already imposed an injunction that stops the state from enforcing the mandate on health workers who claim a religious exemption, pending the outcome of a hearing next month.

The three-judge appellate panel questioned the need for an additional measure.

"If it's true that a private employer has fired somebody for not getting vaccinated, that's not the state disregarding the (temporary restraining order)," Judge Robert Sack said

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Atkinson argued Gov. Kathy Hochul was pressuring private employers to fire unvaccinated health workers during her recent public appearances.

"We have Governor Hochul making public statements that God wants you to get the vaccine, that there are no legitimate religious exemptions," Atkinson said.

But the judges were skeptical.

"Saying God wants you to get the vaccine is different from saying you've got to fire people under state law," Judge Sack said.

An attorney for the state, Steven Woo, said the Department of Health is in full compliance with the law and the existing temporary restraining order.

"This court shouldn't grant its own stay," Woo said. "A rule like this one does not have to have religious exemption."

The state argued that offering a religious exemption to the statewide vaccine mandate would defeat the purpose.

"This order was issued to ensure healthcare workers in these facilities, who are dealing with particularly vulnerable populations, will be protected themselves and will not be a vector for further spread in these facilities," Woo said.

Woo said the health worker vaccine mandate displays no hostility to religion and is generally applicable to all workers in the field.

Governor Hochul says no health care facilities have closed since the mandate went into effect, and that 87% of hospital staff are fully vaccinated statewide.

In New York City, the 11 city-run hospitals have a 92% vaccination rate, with roughly 3,000 Health + Hospital workers not yet vaccinated out of 43,000.

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