Judge rules that NYC teachers get jobs back after fighting COVID-19 vaccine mandate
The Children's Health Defense and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. sponsored the legal challenge and praised the ruling, calling it a win for religious freedom.
A judge has ruled that 10 New York City teachers who were fired for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine were wrongfully dismissed.
In the ruling, New York state Supreme Court Judge Ralph J. Porzio said the city's denial of religious accommodations from getting vaccinated employees was "unlawful, arbitrary and capricious" and ordered the teachers to be reinstated with back pay.
"This court sees no rational basis for not allowing unvaccinated classroom teachers in amongst an admitted population of primarily unvaccinated students," he wrote in the 22-page ruling.
The lawsuit was filed by school principals, teachers and other educators after city officials rejected their claims for a religious exemption to the city's vaccine mandate for education workers, which was in effect from Oct. 1, 2021, to Feb. 10, 2023. Thousands of teachers and other personnel were terminated for not complying with the mandate.
The Children's Health Defense, a nonprofit founded by vaccine skeptic and Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., sponsored the legal challenge and praised the ruling, calling it a win for religious freedom. The group is also behind a federal lawsuit targeting NYC's vaccine mandate.
"This victory is a watershed moment in the teachers’ two-year fight for relief," Sujata Gibson, lead attorney in the two cases, said in a statement. “The court’s decision not only grants relief to these ten teachers, but it also sets important precedent for all other teachers denied religious accommodation.”
During the pandemic, New York City imposed some of the strictest COVID-19 vaccine mandates in the country, enforcing rules for public and private sector workers.
More than 1,750 city workers were fired for refusing to get vaccinated, including 36 members of the New York City Police Department and more than 950 public school employees.
Several unions sued the city over the mandate, and last October, Porzio ruled that the city's policy was enacted "illegally" and workers who were fired for refusing to comply must be "immediately reinstated" with back pay. The city appealed the judge's ruling.
But in February, Mayor Eric Adams lifted a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, citing new data showing more than 96% of municipal employees are fully vaccinated.
It's not clear whether Porzio's latest ruling will be appealed. The New York City Department of Education and the mayor's office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
The plaintiffs in the legal challenge pointed out that the court's ruling won't provide relief for other teachers who had not initially applied for religious accommodation under the city's vaccine mandate. They are vowing to press on with additional legal challenges to seek relief for others impacted by the mandate.
Michael Kane, a New York City teacher who lost his job after refusing to get a COVID shot, called the court's ruling "bittersweet."
"While it’s an important step in the right direction, justice for only ten of us doesn’t even scratch the surface of the injustice suffered by NYC workers as a result of this illegal mandate," he said in a statement.