Minnesota House Republicans are criticizing the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for its vaccine mandate policy for employees, a move that's drawing sharp pushback from Democrats, who called it "disturbing" for lawmakers to question the judgment of medical professionals.

In a letter sent to Mayo CEO and president Dr. Gianrico Farrugia earlier this month, Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, said she and other House GOP legislators have heard from a number of Mayo employees who described an "onerous and daunting" application process to apply for religious exemptions from the mandate, some of which were denied.

The letter, signed by more than three dozen Republicans in the House minority caucus, goes further to say they will not support state funding "for any health care facility that fires their employees due to unrealistic vaccine mandate policies."

"This top down, heavy-handed, all-or-none employee policy does not fit the reputation or image we know the Mayo Clinic to have," the letter reads. "Religious exemptions seem to be difficult to obtain and inconsistent."

Federal courts in recent weeks have upheld challenges to Biden administration vaccine requirements. On Wednesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit temporarily scaled back the injunction, effectively restoring the vaccine mandate for workers in hospitals in 26 states, including Minnesota, that receive federal funding.

Several large health care groups in the state, including the Mayo Clinic, are moving forward with their own mandates regardless of the outcome of the court battles.

"Beyond the ability to require vaccination, Mayo Clinic has a moral imperative to do so. Our staff provide care to transplant patients, cancer patients, immunocompromised patients and some of the most medically vulnerable people in the world," Mayo Clinic spokesman Karl Oestreichsaid in a statement. "Mayo Clinic requires vaccination of our staff because it is the right thing to do for our patients and our community. Our vaccine requirement reflects the best available science. Our exemptions process complies with applicable law."

Oestreich said Mayo "has already granted the majority of exemptions sought" to the requirement.

The letter comes at a time when ICU beds are almost all taken and hospitals are overwhelmed, said House Health and Human Services Committee Chair Tina Liebling. Minnesota surpassed 10,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday.

"Their attack on Mayo Clinic is particularly disturbing. They question Mayo's scientific judgment and decisions about how to best protect its patients and even threaten to withhold state funding if they don't get their way," Liebling, a Democrat who represents Rochester, said in a statement. "Meanwhile, doctors, nurses, and health care leaders are pleading with Minnesotans to get vaccinated and take other precautions to fight the pandemic."

Republicans in control of the state Senate also are asking Gov. Tim Walz to drop a vaccine requirement for state workers as part of negotiations around a special session. Lawmakers have been debating for months the terms of a special session to give aid to frontline workers and relief for farmers hit by the summer drought.