Over the past few weeks, the Supreme Court of the United States has issued praiseworthy decisions affecting crucial matters like abortion and religious freedom. In Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Court saved untold numbers of innocent lives by overturning the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and ruling that there is no constitutional right to an abortion. In Carson v. Makin, the Court held that the First Amendment did not allow religious schools to be excluded from receiving educational tuition vouchers. And in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Court found that the First Amendment does not allow a public school to punish an coach for kneeling and praying after school football games. Unfortunately, however, the Court recently declined to decide a religious liberty case arising out of the state of New York.
On June 30, 2022, the Court announced that it would not hear the case of Dr. A. v. Hochul. This case involved a constitutional challenge to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for healthcare workers. The mandate included an exemption based on medical reasons, but did not include an exemption for workers with religious objections to COVID-19 vaccination. Sixteen New Yorkers sued the state in federal court, claiming that their constitutional rights were being violated. The 16 petitioners stated that they could not, in good conscience, be vaccinated against COVID-19 because fetal cell lines originating from aborted babies were used in the creation of the vaccines. As Albany Update noted, a federal judge ruled in favor of the petitioners last October, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judge’s decision.
The Supreme Court hears only a small percentage of the cases that it receives on appeal. When the Court chooses not to hear a case, it issues a denial of certiorari. A denial of certiorari means that less than four justices of the Court wished to hear the case. The Court does not explain its reasons for denying certiorari; however, in some cases, justices who wish to hear the case publish dissenting opinions stating their reasoning.
In Dr. A. v. Hochul, Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the Court’s denial of certiorari. In a previous decision, Employment Division v. Smith (1990), the Court ruled that laws that are neutral and generally applicable are presumed to be constitutional under the First Amendment. Justice Thomas noted that various federal appeals courts around the country have disagreed about whether vaccine mandates like New York’s are neutral and generally applicable. Justice Thomas opined that the Court should have taken the case to resolve the split between the various federal courts. His opinion was joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.
At New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, we believe that the Supreme Court should have heard the appeal in Dr. A. v. Hochul and should have found New York’s vaccine mandate unconstitutional. As Justice Thomas noted in his dissent, the Court ruled last year that “‘a law . . . lacks general applicability if it prohibits religious conduct while permitting secular conduct that undermines the government’s interests in a similar way.’” By allowing health care workers to refuse vaccination for medical reasons but not allowing such workers to refuse vaccination for religious reasons, the state of New York has done exactly that. New Yorkers should not be required to violate their religious convictions to remain employed.