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Judge denies health care workers’ lawsuit asking R.I. to accept religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The four health care workers claimed the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate was “unconstitutional”

A syringe is filled with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.JIM WILSON/NYT

PROVIDENCE — A US District Court judge has denied a temporary restraining order filed by health care workers who sued the state over not accepting religious exemptions for the Oct. 1 health care vaccine mandate.

Four health care workers in Rhode Island whose requests for religious exemptions to the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate were denied had filed for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against Governor Dan McKee and state health department director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott last week.

The state’s mandate does not allow for religious exemptions.

The plaintiffs, who were not named in the case filings, were identified as a nurse employed by Lifespan, a Rhode Island medical school student, a health unit coordinator at a hospital that was not named, and a doctor who is employed in a “Rhode Island medical practice with other physicians.” They claimed in court filings that the state’s mandate was “unconstitutional.”

US District judge Mary S. McElroy, who presided over the state, wrote in her ruling that the four unvaccinated workers that filed this suit did so just eight days before the mandate’s deadline, but more than five weeks after the governor announced it.


McKee announced in mid-August that all health care workers in the state would have to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 1 or else they would be at risk of losing their jobs, and possibly, their licenses.

The plaintiffs, who were represented by attorney Joseph Larisa Jr., had argued that the regulation impermissibly burdens their right to freedom of religion under the First Amendment.

But McElroy said the the courts have found that mandatory vaccination laws are a “valid exercise of a state’s police powers” for more than a century.

The plaintiffs argued that the the regulation makes health care employers “disregard” Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which is meant to protect employees against employment discrimination on the basis of religion. They also argued that the regulation is an “unconstitutional abridgment” of the plaintiffs’ right to equal protection under the Fourth Amendment.


But McElroy wrote, “Nothing in the language prevents any employer from providing a reasonable accommodation to an employee who seeks one in accord with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

She wrote that the plaintiffs had failed to make out a case of likelihood of success on the merits on their Title VII claim and wrote, “Although the plaintiffs contended at oral argument that the regulation makes reasonable accommodation virtually impossible, there is no evidence before the court at this stage that would allow the finding of a likelihood of success on the merits on that claim.”

Both the governor and Alexander-Scott doubled down on the mandate during a Thursday afternoon press conference. They said it was “critical” for health care workers to get fully vaccinated to protect patients.

“Our enforcement starts day one… tomorrow… Oct. 1,” said Alexander-Scott.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.