By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday refused to block New York City's requirement that its public school teachers and employees be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Sotomayor denied a challenge by four teachers and teaching assistants who sought to halt enforcement of the vaccine mandate while their lawsuit challenging the policy continues in lower courts. Public school system workers were ordered to be vaccinated by 5 p.m. EDT (2100 GMT) on Friday or face being placed on unpaid leave until September 2022.
Some governments and private employers have embraced vaccine mandates to guard against the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace as they try to return to some degree of normalcy after coronavirus pandemic-related disruptions that began last year. Such mandates have become a flash point in the United States, with opponents including those in New York City saying their constitutional rights are being violated.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, a Democrat, announced on Aug. 23 that all 148,000 staff in the largest U.S. school district would be required to submit proof of at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. After a lower court temporarily blocked the measure - an order since lifted - the deadline was pushed to Oct. 1.
Around 1 million students attend the city's public schools.
Sotomayor rejected the emergency request without offering an explanation or referring the matter to the full nine-member court. Her decision mirrored one by Justice Amy Coney Barrett in August denying a bid by Indiana University students to block that school's vaccine mandate.
Sotomayor handled the case for the Supreme Court because she is the justice assigned to deal with emergency requests arising from cases in states in a region that includes New York.
De Blasio said in a television interview on Friday that 90% of the city's education department employees were already vaccinated with at least one dose, including 93% of teachers and 98% of school principals.
The New York teachers filed a proposed class action lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court last month, claiming that the vaccine mandate violates their rights to due process and equal protection under the law under the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment.
The mandate interferes with their freedom to pursue their chosen profession and discriminates against them because other municipal workers can opt out by taking weekly COVID-19 tests, the teachers said.
One of the plaintiffs, Rachel Maniscalco, who teaches in the city's borough of Staten Island, expressed concern about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, while the other plaintiffs contend they should be exempt because they have antibodies from a prior COVID-19 infection.
A federal judge and the Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied the teachers' bid to halt the mandate, prompting their appeal to the Supreme Court.
Defending the mandate in a lower court, the city noted that courts have long held that vaccine mandates do not violate constitutional rights.
"Put bluntly, plaintiffs do not have a substantive due process right to teach children without being vaccinated against a dangerous infectious disease," lawyers for the city said.