Court breathes new life into lawsuit challenging Maine’s vaccine mandate for health care workers

A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Maine’s mandate for a COVID-19 vaccine for health care workers, a move that will renew the debate over religious exemptions.

In a unanimous decision Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals found that U.S. District Judge John Levy failed to properly consider the potential public health impact of religious exemptions not permitted by state policy, and ordered -lower instance to consider this part of the case.

The original case, which named Gov. Janet Mills, former Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah and Maine Health and Human Services Commissioner Jean Lambreau as defendants, was filed in 2021 by eight former health workers who lost their jobs after refusing to get the vaccine for religious reasons, as well as a former employer.

The lawsuit claims that the plaintiffs have a religious right to refuse the vaccine because of their belief that fetal stem cells from abortions were used in its development. The plaintiffs also argue that the state mandate is discriminatory by allowing medical exemptions but not religious exemptions.

The health workers initially filed their lawsuit anonymously, citing concerns for their safety.

The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November 2021 challenging the group’s right to anonymity. The newspapers, which were represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that the plaintiffs’ “alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public’s interest in open litigation,” according to court documents.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston ruled in July that the plaintiffs must reveal their names in an amended complaint for the case to proceed. Seven of the nine original plaintiffs complied with the order, while the other two dropped the case.

Last August, Levy dismissed the group’s lawsuit, saying the workers failed to prove several claims, including that the COVID-19 vaccine requirement is different from any other vaccine requirement imposed on healthcare workers.

Maine’s law allowed health care workers to seek religious and philosophical exemptions from DHHS vaccine mandates until 2019, when the Legislature limited exemptions to workers for whom vaccinations would be “medically inadvisable.” More than 72% of Mainers voted to keep the policy change in a statewide referendum in March 2020. The following summer, DHHS added the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of required vaccines for healthcare workers.

Thursday’s ruling upheld Levy’s dismissal of several of the plaintiffs’ claims, including that their employers violated federal law by failing to provide them with exemptions from the vaccine mandate. But the group found it plausible that Maine erred by banning religious exemptions while allowing medical exemptions because both policies could have similar impacts on public health and the retention and availability of health care workers.

Liberty Counsel, a religious law firm in Florida that represents health care workers, celebrated Thursday’s ruling by the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Gov. Janet Mills blasted the health care heroes who responded on the front lines,” wrote Liberty Counsel founder and chairman Matt Staver. “But instead of a parade of heroes, Mills violated their religious rights and sent them to the unemployment lines. Governor Mills and her administration will now have to defend her actions in court.”

Representatives from the Maine attorney general’s office did not respond to a request to discuss the decision Thursday evening.

The judges noted that the decision was not an endorsement of the plaintiffs’ arguments. The case will return to U.S. District Court in Portland, which will hear further arguments on whether the mandate limits workers’ religious freedoms and, if so, whether the state’s interest in protecting public health justifies those restrictions.

Currently, the vaccine mandate remains in place.

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