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Supreme Court Says No Religious Exemption from Covid Vaccination for N.Y. Health Workers

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 12/13/2021 Jess Bravin
© Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court turned down emergency requests by New York healthcare workers for a religious exemption from state requirements to vaccinate against Covid-19. A federal appeals court in New York previously denied the workers’ requests.

The court denied the requests in brief written orders. As is typical for such emergency actions, the majority didn’t explain its thinking. Three conservative justices—Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch—said they would have allowed the exemptions.

In October, the court denied a similar application from Maine healthcare workers seeking exemption from their state’s vaccination requirements, which lower courts had rejected. The same three conservatives dissented.

As in the Maine case, the New York applicants in separate lawsuits argued that they were entitled to a religious exception because state rules exempted a different category of covered workers: individuals who could suffer adverse health consequences, such as an allergic reaction, from the vaccine.

In the New York suits, nurses and other healthcare workers based their refusal to vaccinate on a religious objection to abortion. The workers believe “abortion-derived fetal cell lines” were used in testing, developing or producing the vaccine, one suit said. Neither lower courts nor the state have questioned the workers “sincerity or religiosity,” the brief said.

Video: Crowds gather as Supreme Court hears abortion case (Associated Press)

In its response, New York state argued the Covid requirement was no different from longstanding rules that healthcare workers vaccinate against other diseases such as measles and rubella.

The state also said the vaccines don’t contain aborted fetal cells.

“HEK-293 cells—which are currently grown in a laboratory and are thousands of generations removed from cells collected from a fetus in 1973—were used in testing during the research and development phase of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines,” the state said. “But the use of fetal cell lines for testing is common, including for the rubella vaccination, which New York’s healthcare workers are already required to take.”

New York said Pope Francis and other Catholic leaders have approved of Covid vaccines.

“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has explained that receiving the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is consistent with the Catholic faith because those vaccines did not use fetal cell lines for their ‘design, development, or production,’ and the connection between those vaccines and abortion ‘is very remote,’” the state’s brief said.

Write to Jess Bravin at


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