Maine can enforce its Covid-19 vaccine mandate for health-care workers—which takes effect Oct. 29—without offering an exemption to those who claim the vaccine violates their religious beliefs, a federal judge in the state ruled Wednesday.
Judge Jon D. Levy denied an injunction bid by a group of anonymous health workers, saying they were unlikely to prevail with their claim that top health officials engaged in unconstitutional favoritism by including a medical, but not a religious, exemption.
“Exempting individuals whose health will be threatened if they receive a Covid-19 vaccine is an essential, constituent part of a reasoned public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic,” Levy wrote in a 41-page ruling. “It does not suggest a discriminatory bias against religion.”
The group of Jane and John Does leading the lawsuit filed a notice of appeal within hours.
Like the health workers leading a parallel challenge to New York’s vaccine mandate, they have argued that the Covid-19 vaccines are derived from fetal stem cell research and that a religious exemption in an earlier version of the rule was removed for discriminatory reasons.
Those arguments have so far carried the day—tentatively—in New York, where a federal appeals court is weighing whether to reinstate the mandate after it was temporarily blocked. A hearing before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was put on hold Wednesday.
But the two mandates are different, Levy wrote for the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine. Crucially, New York’s exemption was eliminated just days before its mandate took effect, and the state retained its religious exemptions for other vaccines, the judge noted.
In Maine, meanwhile, lawmakers in 2019 repealed all vaccine exemptions for health workers without a valid medical reason, and the policy survived a referendum the next year, Levy said. That’s why the religious exemption was removed from the Covid-19 vaccine rule, he found.
“The record establishes that the Maine Legislature’s object in eliminating the religious and philosophical exemptions in 2019 was to further crucial public health goals, and nothing more,” the judge wrote.
He rejected the idea that the vaccine requirement resembles other restrictions, such as limits on religious gatherings, that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down over the course of the pandemic.
Worshippers affected by those rules had no other way of performing certain rituals and practices, but health workers who object to the mandate are free to quit, Levy said.
“The plaintiffs have, in fact, freely exercised their religious beliefs by declining to be vaccinated,” he wrote.
The state has also shown that other, less restrictive approaches—such as masking and testing alone—are insufficient to prevent outbreaks in health care settings, the judge found.
The government officials are represented by the state attorney general’s office. The plaintiffs are represented by Liberty Counsel.
The case is Doe v. Mills, D. Me., No. 21-cv-242, 10/13/21.