Poughkeepsie judge brings federal lawsuit against court system over vaccine mandate

Poughkeepsie City Court Judge Frank Mora sued New York's court system on Wednesday over its decision to deny him a religious exemption from the system's COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Because of Mora's refusal to vaccinate himself against COVID-19, which he described as being rooted in his Catholicism, he "remains in exile" from the courthouse and is "barred from his courtroom," according to the lawsuit.

Mora explains that he has "sincerely held religious beliefs which prohibit him from subjecting a healthy body to vaccinations and views such a practice as contrary to God's commandments as reflect in scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

After his refusal to get vaccinated, contravening the court system's mandate that was rolled out in August 2021, Mora was prohibited from entering any New York state courthouse, including his own. His duties were also sharply curtailed, limited to overseeing civil cases remotely and issuing opinions in certain criminal matters.

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Vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination booster.
Vials of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination booster.

Though the mandate, which applies to all judges and non-judicial staff, allows individuals to request a legitimate medical or religious exemption, Mora says his request was denied without explanation.

Mora "detailed the religious and scriptural bases for his sincerely held religious beliefs and submitted that, as an adult, he had never violated those precepts and taken a vaccination," he said in his lawsuit, filed in federal court.

Later on, according to the lawsuit, a lawyer for the court system told Mora that he did not provide "the necessary information to determine if his request was based on a sincerely held religious belief" and said "his answer in response to question 1 conflicts with his alleged beliefs."

Suit: no chance to appeal

Mora's lawsuit criticized the process for obtaining an exemption as devoid of any meaningful opportunity to review or appeal an adverse decision. He alleges that the court system's implementation of its vaccination mandate, including how it handles religious exemptions, violates the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to accommodate religious beliefs.

In a statement, Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the court system, said it would be inappropriate to comment on pending litigation.

In April of 2021, Pope Francis urged Catholics to get vaccinated against COVID-19, calling it an "act of love." Soon after, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which includes Poughkeepsie, urged its priests not to offer Catholics religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

David S. Rich, an employment attorney based in New York City, explained that federal law gives employees with sincerely held religious beliefs the ability to opt out of (or modify) a company policy, such as a vaccination mandate, if that accommodation would not cause the employer undue hardship.

However, federal courts assess these kinds of cases "on a case-by-case basis," he said, adding that the courts will review an employer's decision "without affording it much deference."

Rich said that at least a few public servants in New York City have successfully challenged the city's denial of their religious exemption requests.

Mora has previously been the subject of media coverage over his reported disregard for the court's COVID-19 rules. Law360 reported in January that Mora "has been violating court administrators' orders this month by repeatedly returning [to the courthouse] maskless."

Mora is hardly alone in his resistance to the COVID-19 vaccination mandate. On the Court of Appeals, New York's highest court, Associate Judge Jenny Rivera refused vaccination for months after it was required, forcing her to work remotely.

Rivera, one of the court's more liberal members, ultimately announced her intent to comply with the mandate this past summer.

This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Poughkeepsie NY judge sues courts over COVID-19 vaccine mandate