- Workers sought religious exemption to mandate
- Appeals court says claims are plausible, revives lawsuit
- Similar White House mandate set to be repealed
May 25 (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court on Thursday revived claims that Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers is unconstitutional because it lacks a religious exemption.
A unanimous three-judge panel of the Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it was plausible that Maine had no justification to bar exemptions on religious grounds while allowing them for medical reasons, and a judge should not have thrown out the lawsuit by seven healthcare workers.
The office of Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, a Democrat, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Nor did lawyers for the plaintiffs.
Maine adopted the healthcare mandate, which exempts workers with certain medical conditions, on an emergency basis in 2021 and made it permanent later that year. At least eleven other states including New York, California, and Illinois adopted similar requirements during the pandemic.
President Joe Biden, a Democrat, also imposed a vaccine mandate for employees of healthcare facilities that receive federal funds, which the White House recently said will soon be repealed. The U.S. Supreme Court in October declined to hear a challenge to the federal mandate by 10 Republican-led states.
The seven plaintiffs in Maine all requested religious exemptions from their employers, which were denied, and they were subsequently fired after refusing to be vaccinated, according to court filings. They sued the state in 2021, claiming the mandate violated their constitutional rights to free exercise of religion and equal protection.
U.S. District Judge Jon Levy in Bangor, Maine threw out the lawsuit last year, saying that allowing more exemptions to the mandate could threaten public safety.
The plaintiffs appealed and the 1st Circuit on Thursday reversed. The court said the state had not attempted to quantify the impact that a religious exemption would have, leaving it unable to prove that an exemption for religious workers was more of a threat than one for people with medical conditions.
“The availability of a medical exemption, like a religious exemption, could reduce vaccination rates among healthcare workers and increase the risk of disease spread in healthcare facilities,” Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch wrote.
The court, meanwhile, affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims that their individual employers had violated a federal law prohibiting workplace religious discrimination by not exempting them from the vaccine mandate.
Doing so would have placed an undue burden on the employers by exposing them to fines and license suspension, Lynch said.
The panel included Circuit Judges Lara Montecalvo and Bruce Selya.
The case is Lowe v. Mills, 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 22-1710.
For the plaintiffs: Matthew Staver of Liberty Counsel
For the state: Maine Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Patwardhan
For the employers: James Erwin of Pierce Atwood
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