In 2021, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted a series of coronavirus vaccine mandates. In July 2021, he announced a vaccine mandate for city workers. And in December 2021, he expanded the vaccine mandate to private-sector workers, too.
But starting January 1, 2022, New York City got a new mayor, Eric Adams. Mayor Adams has decided to keep in place former Mayor de Blasio’s vaccine mandate for city workers. This includes the February 11, 2022 deadline to get inoculated.
Most of New York’s city workers have gotten vaccinated, but a few thousand have not and risk losing their jobs.
New York City’s Authority to Impose the Coronavirus Vaccine Mandate
When it comes to a state or city’s legal authority to impose vaccination requirements, the law is fairly well settled. Going back more than a hundred years, the U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed the authority of local governments to require its citizens to get vaccinated.
The two key cases establishing this precedent are Jacobson v. Massachusetts (from 1905) and Zucht v. King (from 1922). And although the legal theories have changed somewhat since then, the overall premise of local government authority to enforce vaccine mandates is still solid law. More recent caseshave come to similar legal conclusions. However, one of the current legal questions still up to debate is the implementation of religious exemptions.
MORE FOR YOU
How Religious Exemptions Work
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits governments from enacting laws that would “establish” a religion or infringe on an individual’s free exercise of religion. It’s this latter right that applies to religious exemptions to vaccine mandates.
The premise of someone requesting a religious exemption to a vaccine requirement is that it goes against their religious beliefs. The vast majority of religions commonly practiced in the United States do not have religious tenets that are against vaccines. Despite this, the sincerity of someone’s religious beliefs as theyrelate to getting vaccinated isn’t usually the primary issue of contention in court.
Instead, the focus is more often on the applicability of a particular legal argument, such as whether the vaccine requirement is universally applied. Why does this matter? Because it can change how the court will approach the legality of the vaccination law.
Courts referred to these “approaches” as levels of judicial review. The basic idea is that the more compelling the reason the government has for a law that could restrict someone’s religious beliefs, and the more tailored that law is to limiting any infringement on someone’s religious rights, the more likely a court will uphold the law.
So if a law is universally applied to all individuals (regardless of their religious beliefs), and the government has a really good reason for enacting that law, a court will use a level of judicial review that makes it more likely the law stands.
But if a law only focuses on a particular religion or religious practice, and/or the government’s reasons for the law aren’t very important, then courts will use a level of judicial review that makes it more likely the law gets struck down.
So how does this apply to vaccine mandates? Based on prior case law, it’s possible that a vaccine mandate that only offers a medical exemption will not be considered a law of universal applicability. This is because those with medical reasons can get an exemption while those with religious reasons cannot. So unless the government can give a good reason for this discrepancy, then courts will use a higher level of judicial review making it easier to strike down the law on First Amendment grounds.
Fortunately for Mayor Adams, the NYC vaccine mandate for city workers offers both medical and religious exemptions. Therefore, it’ll be difficult to oppose the New York City vaccine mandate for city workers based on this “universal applicability” argument.
According to the New York Times, roughly 13,000 exemptions requests from New York City workershave been submitted. About 2,000 have been approved, about 5,000 have been denied and the rest are still being processed.
Another Legal Option for City Workers Who Refuse the Vaccine
Several New York City unions filed a lawsuit earlier this week challenging the potential firings of their members. Specifically, they argue that summarily firing employees for not complying with the vaccine requirement would be a violation of their due process rights because they’re being terminated without following the proper procedures.
However, the city argues that getting fired for not getting vaccinated is not a form of workplace discipline and is instead a condition of employment. As a result, the summary dismissals would not be a violation of the workers’ due process rights.
A city’s right to require its workers to get vaccinated is well-settled law. Most legal challenges to worker vaccine mandates at the local level have been unsuccessful.
Two potential legal arguments against New York City’s vaccine mandate for workers could attack the law based on religious freedom and due process grounds. But because the vaccine law has been set up so that the vaccine requirement is a condition of employment and provides both medical and religious exemptions, it’s unclear how successful these arguments will be.