U.S. Supreme Court declines to grant injunction on Maine health care worker COVID vaccine mandate

Filed under: Blog,Legal,News |

By Sheila Lynch-Afryl, J.D., M.A.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied injunctive relief to health care workers who argued that Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate violated their rights under the Constitution and Title VII because it did not include a religious exemption. Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito dissented (Does 1-3 v. Mills, October 29, 2021, Breyer, S.).

Vaccination requirement. In August, the state announced that health care workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 1 (see 10-144 CMR Ch. 264) and later announced that it would begin enforcement on October 29, 2021. The mandate allowed for medical, but not religious, exemptions. The health care workers and a provider filed suit seeking a preliminary injunction against the rule’s enforcement, arguing that their religious beliefs prohibited them from using any product connected in any way with abortion.

The district court denied their request for preliminary injunction and the First Circuit affirmed (see Preliminary injunction prohibiting Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers denied, October 18, 2021; Mandatory vaccination for healthcare workers was facially neutral, did not single out religious objectors, October 20, 2021).

Dissent. Justices Gorsuch, Thomas, and Alito, dissenting from the Court’s refusal to grant injunctive relief, argued that the “case presents an important constitutional question, a serious error, and an irreparable injury.” They concluded that strict scrutiny applied because (1) “Maine will respect even mere trepidation over vaccination as sufficient, but only so long as it is phrased in medical and not religious terms,” and (2) the state allows those invoking medical reasons to avoid the vaccine mandate on the premise that these individuals can take alternative measures to safeguard their patients and coworkers, but it refuses to allow those invoking religious reasons to do the same thing.

They argued that the First Circuit erred by finding the rule neutral and generally applicable by restating the state’s interests on its behalf, “and doing so at an artificially high level of generality.” Applying strict scrutiny, and assuming a compelling state interest, Maine did not show that its rule represents the least restrictive means available to achieve it. Accordingly, the three dissenting justices would have granted relief.

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