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High court refuses to block Maine vaccine mandate for health workers

The high court rules in favor of Covid-19 vaccine mandates in the first statewide case to come across its docket.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from Maine health care workers fighting a Covid-19 vaccine mandate that went into effect Friday.

The opinion ruling against the health care workers’ religious exemption appeal was written by the court’s newest member Justice Amy Coney Barret who was joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Three of the court’s conservative members — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented. 

“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 … 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. The applicants ask us to enjoin further enforcement of Maine’s new rule as to them, at least until we can decide whether to accept their petition for certiorari,” Gorsuch writes. 

The mandate was instituted by Maine Governor Janet Mills in late September and requires health care workers to be fully vaccinated or risk losing their jobs. The health care workers challenged the mandate, citing their religious beliefs that prevent them from receiving the vaccine in part because of its “connection to aborted fetal cell lines.” 

The court declined a previous emergency order from the workers where Justice Stephen Breyer denied their request without prejudice and sent the case back down to the First Circuit. Shortly after the Supreme Court issued its denial, the First Circuit declined the workers’ request for a preliminary injunction and the case headed back to the high court. 

Barrett’s opinion focuses more on the nature of the emergency dock — often called the shadow docket — than the case itself. Barrett said if the rules were different the court could give a “merits preview in cases that it would be unlikely to take.” 

“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,” Barrett writes. 

In their brief, the health care workers claim the mandate violates the Civil Rights Act and the First Amendment. 

“Employers bent on discrimination 'usually don’t post help wanted signs reading ''blacks need not apply'' … But Maine and its healthcare employers have no problem being direct: 'religious misbelievers need not apply,'” the plaintiffs' brief states.

Unlike Barrett’s one-paragraph opinion, the eight-page dissent focuses on the religious exemptions sought by the workers. In his dissent, Gorsuch agrees that the mandate violates the First Amendment. 

“Laws that single out sincerely held religious beliefs or conduct based on them for sanction are ‘doubtless . . . unconstitutional,’” Gorsuch states. 

The court has previously rejected vaccine mandate challenges from New York public school teachers and Indiana University students and employees. 

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