Court turns away religious challenge to Maine’s vaccine mandate for health care workers

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The Supreme Court on Friday allowed a vaccine mandate for Maine health care workers to remain in effect, rejecting an emergency request from workers who argued that they should receive religious exemptions.

The brief order was a rare instance of the court deferring to a state COVID-19 policy in the face of religious-rights claims, and the decision split the court’s conservatives. The three most conservative justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch — argued in dissent that Maine’s mandate unconstitutionally discriminates against health care workers with religious objections to the coronavirus vaccines. Two other conservatives — Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — agreed with the decision not to intervene, saying the court’s emergency docket is not the right place to resolve the merits of the workers’ claims.

On Aug. 12, Maine health officials added COVID-19 to a longstanding list of diseases against which health care workers must be vaccinated. The mandate exempts people for whom a vaccine would be “medically inadvisable,” but it does not allow exemptions for people with religious objections to a vaccine. Officials pledged to begin enforcing the COVID-19 vaccine mandate on Oct. 29.

A small group of health care workers sued, arguing that they are entitled to religious exemptions under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and federal employment law. Two lower courts ruled against them, prompting the workers to seek emergency relief at the Supreme Court last week. They asked the justices to issue an order preventing the state from enforcing the mandate without religious exemptions.

The court’s single-sentence order declining to intervene did not explain the majority’s reasoning. But Barrett wrote a short concurrence, joined by Kavanaugh, pointing out that the emergency posture of the case meant that the court had not received full briefing or heard oral argument. Those limitations, Barrett wrote, weigh against granting the “extraordinary relief” that the workers were requesting.

Gorsuch, joined by Thomas and Alio, wrote an eight-page dissent in which he argued that Maine’s mandate has forced the health care workers to choose between following their religious convictions or losing their jobs. Refusing to grant religious exemptions, he wrote, “borders on the irrational.”

The court has turned away other emergency challenges to COVID vaccine mandates recently. In August, Barrett rejected a challenge to Indiana University’s mandate, and earlier this month, Justice Sonia Sotomayor rejected a challenge to New York City’s mandate for public-school employees. But the Maine case was the first vaccine challenge involving claims of religious liberty.

In other COVID contexts, particularly social-distancing policies, the court has repeatedly held that state and local governments must provide exemptions for worshippers if the policies allow for non-religious exemptions.



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