Federal judge to decide whether healthcare workers should be granted religious exemption for COVID-19 shooting

A federal judge will soon decide whether healthcare workers should be able to withdraw from Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for religious reasons.

Nine anonymous workers have sued the state to demand such an exemption, which is currently not allowed. Their lawsuit could take on broader significance in light of a conservative shift at the U.S. Supreme Court. On Monday, U.S. District Judge Jon Levy asked both sides how he should view Maine’s rule in light of recent views that signal greater sympathy for religious freedom arguments.

“A key question here… is whether the rule treats secular activity more favorably than a comparable activity rooted in the free exercise of religion,” Levy said.

The case could also test state law that no longer allows religious or philosophical exemptions for other required inoculations. Governor Janet Mills has added the COVID-19 vaccine to those already required by healthcare workers, including vaccines against chickenpox and common flu. The legislature ruled in 2019 that only medical exemptions would be allowed for these shots, and that change survived a referendum challenge the following year.

At one point, Levy raised the potential impact of a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs on the law.

“Does this mean that the underlying law enacted in 2019 generally violates the First Amendment because it does not allow the Department of Health and Human Services to allow religious exemptions from every mandatory vaccine?” Levy asked at one point. “Is this the result of this case? “

Other states, including California and New York, require some or all healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The Biden administration has also announced a broad vaccination mandate that is sure to face legal challenges. But policies and exemptions vary across the country.

In Maine, the governor’s office has estimated that the rule will apply to more than 150,000 workers in hospitals, clinics, group and nursing homes, dental offices, EMS agencies and other healthcare facilities. health approved by the State. The mandate takes effect Oct. 1, but Mills said she won’t apply it until Oct. 29 to give people more time to comply.

Plaintiffs who have challenged this requirement are seeking class action status and are represented by Liberty Counsel, a conservative group based in Florida. Their lawyers have written that their clients are healthcare workers who have objections rooted in Scripture and the general principle to reject any drug or procedure developed with or aided by the use of fetal tissue. They filed a motion for a preliminary injunction, which asks the judge to temporarily block the warrant, and Levy held the hearing on Monday on that motion. He did not say when he would issue an order, but did promise he would try to do so before the requirement took effect.

Vaccination warrants have long been authorized by law. In 1905, the Supreme Court upheld a Massachusetts law that allowed cities to require people to be vaccinated against smallpox and to impose fines on those who did not.

Experts said the consensus has generally been that religious exemptions from vaccination warrants are allowed but not required by the Constitution. That precedent came from a 1990 ruling that upheld Oregon’s ban on peyote, even in Native American religious rituals. The Supreme Court then ruled that the state’s blanket ban did not violate the United States Constitution because it did not specifically target religion, and that concept has been perpetuated for years.

In April, however, the Supreme Court blocked a California rule that restricted home gatherings during the pandemic, which had curtailed Bible study and prayer meetings. If the state makes exceptions to the rule for secular activities, the court said, it must also make exceptions for comparable religious activities. Then, in June, the court said Philadelphia could not refuse to use Catholic social services as a foster care provider after the group refused to accept same-sex couples as foster parents. . The judges kept their opinion narrow, but three Tories said they wanted to go further and overturn that 1990 precedent.

So a key question for Levy is whether these rulings mean that the state must add a religious exemption because it allows a medical exemption.

“I would ask you this,” Levy told the lawyers. “Why should I conclude that an exemption from compulsory vaccination for medical reasons is fairly and rationally considered to be comparable to an exemption for religious reasons?” “

Liberty Counsel attorney Daniel Schmid argued that this rule distinguishes people who want religious exemptions and treats them less favorably than those who need them. Other states have allowed people to seek religious exemptions and undergo regular COVID-19 testing, and he argued Maine hasn’t done enough to find similar alternatives.

“The government has presented no demonstrable evidence as to why this cannot work here too,” he said.

Deputy Attorney General Kimberly Patwardhan argued that the two exemptions are not comparable and should not be viewed in the same way. She said the state had removed religious and philosophical exemptions from vaccine requirements to protect people who could not receive those same vaccines for medical reasons, and the same thinking applies in the governor’s tenure. .

“Granting a medical exemption serves the state’s interest in protecting these people, unlike a religious exemption,” she said.

The healthcare providers Maine Health, Genesis Healthcare, Northern Light Health Foundation and Maine General Health are also named as defendants.

The Mills administration faces another lawsuit in state court over the vaccine’s mandate. In this case, the plaintiffs claim that the rule is unconstitutional and that the Maine Department of Health and Human Services did not follow proper procedures when enacting the emergency rules. This case is pending.

Mills faced further federal lawsuits that challenged his pandemic restriction orders, but judges quickly dismissed those complaints and sided with the governor.

A group of business owners sued the governor’s restrictions on their operations last year. A federal judge allowed the state’s motion to dismiss the case, and the plaintiffs filed and then withdrawn an appeal to the 1st U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston.

The owners of two campgrounds and two restaurants have sued Mills for a 14-day quarantine for most out-of-state visitors, which is no longer in place. A federal judge rejected a request for a preliminary injunction, and the 1st circuit subsequently upheld this decision. The complainants then dismissed the case.

And a church in Orrington has filed a lawsuit challenging a ban at the time of gatherings of more than 10 people. A judge also dismissed a motion for a preliminary injunction, and the appeals court again upheld the decision. Then, the judge allowed a request for complete dismissal of the case, and an appeal is still pending at the 1st circuit.

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