By Christian Wade | The Center Square
The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to strike down Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate amid a challenge from health care workers who were seeking religious exemptions to the new rules.
In a 6 to 3 ruling, the high court on Friday rejected a complaint filed by the Florida-based Liberty Council on behalf of nine health care workers which alleged that the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is violating federal law by requiring vaccinations for health care workers without allowing a religious exemption for those who object.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, a member of the high court’s conservative majority, wrote in a dissenting opinion that the three justices would have allowed the religious exemptions.
“Healthcare workers who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months are now being fired and their practices shuttered, all for adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs,” Gorsuch wrote in the nine-page opinion. “Their plight is worthy of our attention.”
The court’s ruling follows a 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision last week which turned down a similar request by the Liberty Council to block the vaccine mandate over grounds that it violated the First Amendment. The three-judge panel rejected the request for an injunction, saying the legal challenge by opponents was “unlikely to succeed.”
Under Mills’ executive order, health care workers in the state had until Oct. 29 to be fully vaccinated against the virus. The Mills administration originally set an Oct. 1 deadline to comply with the mandate but later said it wouldn’t be enforcing the new rules until Friday.
The requirement includes health care workers in nursing homes and other long term care facilities, firefighters, emergency medical service organizations and dental workers.
Only medical exemptions will be allowed, not religious or philosophical.
Mills said the new rules are needed to prevent further outbreaks as the state battles a resurgence of the virus that has contributed to a rise in new infections and hospitalizations.
The move is backed by the Maine Medical Association, Maine Hospital Association and several other health care groups, which say it will improve public health.
As of Friday, at least 90% of health care workers in Maine’s hospitals were vaccinated, according to the Mills administration.
Republican lawmakers have warned of an exodus of health care workers over the requirement and said it will exacerbate a staff shortage, forcing hospitals to ration care.
The Liberty Counsel argued that religious objections to the vaccines must be allowed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the First Amendment.
“Maine has plainly singled out religious employees who decline vaccination for religious reasons for especially harsh treatment,” lawyers for Liberty Counsel wrote in court filings.
The Supreme Court has previously rejected challenges to similar vaccine mandates in New York City and Indiana.
Mills praised the high court’s ruling, saying it “is imperative that hospitals and other settings take every precaution to protect workers and their patients against this dangerous virus, especially in view of the highly transmissible Delta variant.”
“Anyone who is placed in the care of a health care worker has the right to expect – as do their families – that they will receive high-quality, safe care from fully vaccinated staff,” she said in a statement.