New York long-term care providers cannot deny religious exemptions from the state’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate after a federal judge issued a temporary straining order blocking the rule for lacking the exemption. 

The move could pave the way for long-term care workers to seek religious exemptions, which have become a widely used loophole for employees trying to elude getting shots. 

Thousands of workers in Los Angeles, Washington state and Arkansas are now seeking religious exemptions to get out of the mandate, the Associated Press reported Wednesday. New York attempted to avoid this, but lack of a religious exemption was blocked.

The ruling was handed down Tuesday by Judge David Hurd in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York. The case stems from 17 healthcare workers who sued the state’s governor, health commissioner and attorney general over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate, saying the rule violated their Constitutional rights.

The workers specifically requested a temporary restraining order that would prevent the New York Department of Health DOH from enforcing the mandate “to the extent that it categorically requires healthcare employers to deny or revoke religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination mandates.” 

The court order bars the DOH from “interfering in any way with the granting of religious exemptions form COVID-19 vaccination going forward” and “taking any action, disciplinary or otherwise, against the licensure, certification, residents, admitting privileges or other professional status or qualification of any of the plaintiffs on account of their seeking or having obtained a religious exemption from mandatory COVID-19 vaccination.” 

The original state order was issued on Aug. 28 and required all staff at nursing homes, hospitals and other congregate care settings to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Sept. 27. 

LeadingAge New York explained the temporary restraining order takes effect Sept. 27, which was the date by which nursing home and hospital staff were originally required to have their first dose.

“We understand that the Northern District of New York’s decision granting the TRO applies statewide,” the organization said in a statement. It also noted there are other pending court cases on the matter. “We are analyzing these legal developments with our counsel and will provide more information to members as this matter unfolds.”

The state has until Wednesday (Sept. 22) to respond to the lawsuit in federal court in Utica. If the state opposes a request for a preliminary court order blocking the vaccine mandate, an oral hearing will be held Sept. 28.

The prospect of individuals seeking religion-based exemptions has mushroomed recently. Some proponents are connected to recognized religious institutions, while others are not. Certain groups and social media accounts have increasingly coached how to get around mandates by offering objections with certain wording.