The First Amendment ensures the government cannot pick and choose which religious beliefs deserve protection under the law. But that’s exactly what New York City tried to do in its enforcement of various COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Many New Yorkers lost their jobs, homes, and livelihoods because the city refused to accommodate their religious beliefs, and that was a blatant violation of the Constitution.
What is New Yorkers for Religious Liberty?
New Yorkers for Religious Liberty is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom in New York City as it comes under attack from policies such as the COVID-19 vaccine mandates.
Alliance Defending Freedom is serving as co-counsel for the organization, representing firefighters, building inspectors, police officers, EMTs, teachers, sanitation workers, and other New Yorkers.
Many of these hardworking people saw New York City violate their constitutional rights, and many of them are still suffering the consequences—lost jobs they haven’t recovered.
New Yorkers for Religious Liberty first sued the city of New York in February 2022. At the time, New York City had multiple COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including one that applied to all city employees.
Many New York City employees applied for exemptions from the mandate, but the city used arbitrary methods to pick and choose which employees would receive exemptions.
The mandates carved out exceptions for athletes, strippers, and entertainers, and the city favored some religious denominations over others when deciding whether to grant religious exemptions to individual employees.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that New York City had likely violated the First Amendment in its enforcement of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The court ordered the city to enforce the mandate in a constitutional way.
But New York City continued using unconstitutional standards.
The city claimed it could continue enforcing discriminatory standards because it had created a separate review process for people with religious beliefs that were not favored under the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
But employees who held those beliefs were sent to a citywide panel, and they were given the additional task of proving that granting them a religious exemption to the mandate would not put an “undue burden” on the city.
Since New York City continued to discriminate against some people in the enforcement of its vaccine mandate, New Yorkers for Religious Liberty once again asked the 2nd Circuit to halt enforcement of the mandate in October 2022.
In February 2023, two days before oral arguments were set to take place at the 2nd Circuit, New York City announced it would discontinue the vaccine mandate for city employees. But this last-minute attempt could not fix the harms that the policy had caused for many New Yorkers.
Sarah Buzaglo, for example, lost her job as a teacher and her home in New York City because of the vaccine mandate. The city refused to accommodate her religious beliefs, and Sarah was forced to move to Israel, where her family could take her in and keep her from starving.
In another tragic story, Curtis Cutler was placed on leave without pay because of the mandate. When his son suffered a collapsed lung, Curtis had no health insurance, which forced him and his wife to sell their home and move out of the state while leaving their son behind to finish high school.
These are just two examples, but many other New Yorkers lost their jobs, homes, and livelihoods because New York City mandated the COVID-19 vaccine and did not provide them with religious accommodations.
And the city could issue another vaccine mandate at any time, which is why New Yorkers for Religious Liberty is still asking the 2nd Circuit for injunctive relief.
Oral arguments took place at the 2nd Circuit in February 2023, and New Yorkers who suffered because of the mandate are now awaiting a ruling.
What’s at stake?
Even though New York City eventually lifted its vaccine mandate for city employees, it had already ruined the livelihoods of many of its citizens. And considering that the New York City mayor has issued over 150 versions of vaccine mandates, what is to stop him from issuing another?
Hardworking New Yorkers have a right to pursue damages against the city for its actions and seek assurance that these constitutional violations will not happen again.
A victory for New Yorkers for Religious Liberty will ensure that New York City cannot avoid accountability for violating the First Amendment.
- October 2022: Serving as co-counsel for New Yorkers for Religious Liberty, ADF attorneys asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit to halt enforcement of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
- February 2023: Oral arguments took place at the 2nd Circuit.
- Currently: New Yorkers for Religious Liberty and various individual employees are awaiting a ruling in the case.
The bottom line
Governments should not force hardworking Americans to choose between earning a living and living out their faith.