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Judge temporarily blocks New York vaccine mandate, lacking religious exemption, for medical workers
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Syracuse, N.Y., Sep 14, 2021 / 19:00 pm (CNA).

A federal court on Tuesday granted a temporary restraining order against a New York state COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which disallowed religious exemptions, after a group of anonymous medical professionals filed suit against the governor and her administration. 

Then-governor Andrew Cuomo announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all medical workers in the state in August, with a deadline of Sept. 27 to be fully inoculated. The mandate covers staff at hospitals and long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, adult care facilities, and other care settings, and did not include a religious exemption.  

The Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group, is representing a group of 17 medical professionals who claim the mandate violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and who have chosen to remain anonymous. They are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the state from enforcing the mandate. 

In the ruling from the US District Court for the Northern District of New York, issued Sept. 14, Judge David Hurd wrote that the New York Department of Health is “barred from interfering in any way with the granting of religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination going forward.” 

The state has until Sept. 22 to respond to the temporary restraining order. 

The Thomas More Society says the plaintiffs include doctors, nurses, a medical technician and physician’s liaison, and that they are “now facing termination from employment, loss of hospital admitting privileges, and the destruction of their careers, unless they consent to be vaccinated against their will with vaccines that contradict their sincere religious beliefs.”

Many states have introduced COVID-19 vaccine mandates for healthcare workers and teachers. President Joe Biden announced last week that he had directed the Department of Labor to draft a rule that would require employees at all companies with more than 100 employees to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. 

Bishops across the country have issued varying guidance for Catholics wishing to seek conscientious objections to COVID-19 mandates. A few have expressed explicit support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions; some have said that Catholics may seek exemptions, but must make the case for their own conscience without the involvement of clergy; and some have stated that Catholic teaching lacks a basis to reject vaccination mandates.  

All three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the United States have some connection to cell lines derived from fetal tissue likely derived from a baby aborted decades ago. The vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna were tested on the controversial cell lines, while the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used the cell lines both in production and testing.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, echoing guidance from the Vatican, has since stated that all three vaccines approved for use in the United States are “morally acceptable” for use because of their remote connection with abortion, but if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.

In its December 2020 Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and “therefore, it must be voluntary.” Pope Francis has encouraged COVID-19 vaccination, calling it an “act of love.”

The bishops of South Dakota and of Colorado have explicitly expressed support for Catholics wishing to seek exemptions, while in contrast, many bishops in California, as well as in Chicago, Seattle, and Philadelphia, have instructed clergy not to assist parishioners seeking religious exemptions from receiving COVID-19 vaccines, stating that there is no basis in Catholic moral teaching for rejecting vaccine mandates on religious grounds. 

The Chicago archdiocese, along with the Diocese of El Paso, has introduced its own vaccine mandate for employees.

The five bishops in Wisconsin in late August issued a statement encouraging vaccination against COVID-19, while maintaining that people ought not be forced to accept a COVID vaccine. The bishops added that, in the cases of Catholics conscientiously objecting to receiving a vaccine, clergy should not be intervening on their behalf. 

Portland’s Archbishop Alexander Sample and Spokane’s Bishop Thomas Daly have both decreed similar policies, stating that any Catholic seeking an exemption places the burden on the individual’s conscience rather than on Church approval, and thus priests of their dioceses are not allowed to vouch for the conscience of another person in seeking an exemption from a vaccine mandate. 

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, a think tank that provides guidance on human dignity in health care and medical research, has been vocal about its opposition to mandatory immunization for COVID-19. While acknowledging that reception of COVID-19 vaccines is morally permissible, the center has maintained support for the rights of Catholics to refuse the vaccines because of conscience-based concerns.