Supreme Court allows Maine's bar on religious exemptions to vaccine mandate to stand

COVID-19 vaccine Ball Lunla/Shutterstock

Maine remains one of only three states — along with New York and Rhode Island — whose COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers does not allow for religious exemptions.

The U.S. Supreme Court Friday denied an emergency request to block Maine’s mandate by a group of unvaccinated healthcare workers who say the state’s rule violates their religious liberty. The mandate took effect Friday. Also on Friday, a federal appeals court upheld a similar mandate in New York.

Conservative justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh joined the majority in denying the request, explaining in a brief statement written by Barrett that the case didn't meet the requirements for the court to intervene.

“When this Court is asked to grant extraordinary relief, it considers, among other things, whether the applicant ‘is likely to succeed on the merits,’” Barrett wrote.

“I understand this factor to encompass not only an assessment of the underlying merits but also a discretionary judgment about whether the Court should grant review in the case,” Barrett continued. 

“Were the standard otherwise, applicants could use the emergency docket to force the Court to give a merits preview in cases that it would be unlikely to take — and to do so on a short fuse without benefit of full briefing and oral argument," she stated. "In my view, this discretionary consideration counsels against a grant of extraordinary relief in this case, which is the first to address the questions presented.” 

Three conservative justices, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Justice Clarence Thomas, and Justice Samuel Alito, said they would have granted the request, with Gorsuch authoring the dissenting opinion.

“No one questions that these individuals have served patients on the front line of the COVID–19 pandemic with bravery and grace for 18 months now,” Gorsuch wrote. “Yet, with Maine’s new rule coming into effect, one of the applicants has already lost her job for refusing to betray her faith; another risks the imminent loss of his medical practice.”

Maine previously permitted exemptions for religious or philosophical beliefs, but voters rejected a referendum to reinstate exemptions in the November 2019 election. 

Gorsuch wrote that Maine's rule creates a "double standard" that tolerates medical "trepidation" about the vaccines but not religious objections.

“No one questions that protecting patients and healthcare workers from contracting COVID–19 is a laudable objective. But Maine does not suggest a worker who is unvaccinated for medical reasons is less likely to spread or contract the virus than someone who is unvaccinated for religious reasons," her argued. "Nor may any government blithely assume those claiming a medical exemption will be more willing to wear protective gear, submit to testing, or take other precautions than someone seeking a religious exemption.”

Gorsuch said the case “presents an important constitutional question, a serious error, and an irreparable injury,” and suggested that the plaintiffs “plight is worthy of our attention.” He also argued that civil liberties “face grave risks when governments proclaim indefinite states of emergency.”

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