The day before a new vaccination mandate was announced for employees of religious and private schools in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio called eight Jewish leaders to brief them on his plans.
Leaders expressed concern about the disruption a vaccine requirement could cause in schools and called for a slower approach, according to two people familiar with the call. But the mayor was resolved: the mandate was passing.
Mr de Blasio’s announcement of the measure last week – the country’s biggest effort to force religious and private schools to adhere to a vaccine mandate – could pave the way for a legal battle, as courts in the whole country are planning to challenge a wide range of mandates to fight the coronavirus.
“This will only lead to another legal battle over religious freedom that New York will lose once again,” said Kalman Yeger, a Brooklyn city councilor who was one of many prominent Jewish leaders to criticize the mandate.
The city will however allow religious exemptions from the mandate; City officials said that since they began requiring municipal workers to be vaccinated, about 1,400 religious and medical exemptions have been approved, while 1,700 have been denied.
Other states like California and Washington issued vaccination warrants for teachers that covered public and private schools; they too allowed personal beliefs and religious exemptions.
Whether New York City will face a bitter legal challenge may depend on how it handles exemptions and how aggressively it enforces the mandate, which affects approximately 56,000 employees at 930 private schools and takes effect on December 20.
Schools are required to submit records showing compliance by Dec. 28, and the city could impose fines on schools that do not comply, according to a city official who is familiar with the administration’s plans.
With less than a month in office, Mr de Blasio, who is considering a gubernatorial candidacy next year, continued to expand vaccination mandates and warned more were coming.
“There will be more new initiatives coming to protect people,” the mayor said at a press conference Thursday as he and Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the first five Omicron cases in the state.
This is not the first time the mayor has confronted religious communities over vaccination requirements. Two years ago, as New York faced its worst measles outbreak in decades, Mr de Blasio declared a public health emergency in ultra-Orthodox communities in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, forcing those not vaccinated to receive the vaccine or risk a fine. City officials also closed a preschool yeshiva for violating vaccination orders.
The actions of the city created a rupture in the relations of M. de Blasio with the Orthodox Jewish community; when the mayor was on city council, he represented the Orthodox borough of Borough Park in Brooklyn, and he courted donors from the Orthodox community.
Avi Greenstein, a community leader from Borough Park, said the new term “came by surprise”. Mr Greenstein said the community feared that a city mandate would be misinterpreted by the public as “a Jewish issue” and reinforce negative stereotypes about Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jews.
“I am very concerned that, intentionally or not, this will cause people to label private schools and in particular Orthodox Jewish schools as just full of anti-vaccines, which is not the case,” Mr. Greenstein, a former yeshiva director. . “That’s what scares me.”
Simcha Eichenstein, a member of the Brooklyn state assembly and a former aide to prominent Bobov sect member Mr de Blasio, said the warrant was introduced too hastily without community engagement and could backfire. He said there were around 100 private schools in his district whose leaders were not included in the mayor’s appeal.
“It just wasn’t thought of,” he said in an interview. “It was out of the blue.”
Mr. de Blasio spoke by phone with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop of New York, before the announcement. His appeal with Jewish leaders included Rabbi David Zwiebel, chairman of a group that represents religious and independent school leaders, and Rabbi David Niederman, head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg.
But John Quaglione, a spokesperson for the Diocese of Brooklyn, said he learned about the vaccine mandate from media reports. The text of the order had still not been sent to the diocese on Friday evening, but officials had read it on the mayor’s website, he said.
“There were rumors among the leadership of schools within the nonprofit and religious communities that something was being considered,” he said. “Nothing more than that on our side. “
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Execution – and possibly legal defense – of the mandate will likely fall to mayor-elect Eric Adams, who takes office on January 1 and also has close ties to the Orthodox community. Rabbi Zwiebel, who sent a letter to Mr. de Blasio asking him to reconsider the mandate, is a member of Mr. Adams’ transition team. A spokesperson for Mr Adams declined to comment on the vaccination mandate for private and religious schools.
Last year, the United States Supreme Court overturned a coronavirus restriction issued by the then government. Andrew M. Cuomo who has restricted the size of religious gatherings in specific areas with rising infection rates. The 5-4 decision was in response to a lawsuit brought by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, and was the first in which new tribunal member Judge Amy Coney Barrett was instrumental.
Legal experts said courts across the country have made different rulings on vaccination warrants and the Supreme Court could potentially weigh in on religious exemptions. Lawyers representing healthcare workers in New York, for example, have asked the Supreme Court to review their challenge to the state’s vaccination mandate for healthcare workers.
Legal challenges against employee vaccination warrants have focused on three main arguments – the violation of a worker’s individual rights, the omission or rejection of religious exemptions and complaints about the authority of a government agency, said Lindsay F. Wiley, director of the health law and policy program at American University. Along with the New York challenge, a Maine case could end up in Supreme Court.
“We are all watching to see what the Supreme Court will do on whether there is a constitutionally protected right to a religious exemption,” she said.
In California, the state legislature may consider adding Covid-19 to the list of diseases requiring vaccination, which some believe could eliminate the personal belief exemption in that state. Dr Richard Pan, a California state senator and pediatrician who sponsored previous legislation to end the personal belief exemption, said the legislature should look into the matter.
“Many employers are asking for clarification because these laws were not designed for a pandemic,” said Dr Pan.
In New York City, the state’s ban on religious exemptions for school vaccinations, issued two years ago during the measles outbreak, has been recently confirmed by a court of appeal.
David G. Greenfield, executive director of the Met Council, a Jewish nonprofit that focuses on poverty, said he had worked hard to create a vaccine mandate for his nonprofit that workers could to support. He said Mr de Blasio should have worked to foster cooperation instead of issuing a surprise warrant that would be difficult to enforce.
“It doesn’t look like it was meant to get people vaccinated,” he said.