A group of unvaccinated workers argued that the vaccine mandate violated their religious freedom rights.
The right wing of the court – Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – dissented and would have halted the warrant while the appeals process is ongoing.
The court ruling is the latest case in which judges have denied a request to stop a vaccination mandate and it comes as states grapple with the delta variant.
Writing for his two conservative colleagues, Gorsuch pointed out that “unlike comparable rules in most states,” Maine’s rule “contains no exemptions for those whose sincere religious beliefs prevent them from accepting vaccination” but she has a medical exemption.
Gorsuch said Maine’s decision to deny a religious exemption “borders on the irrational” and that the state had presented no evidence that granting the religious exemption “would threaten its stated public health interests more than its medical exemption already does”. The healthcare workers behind the lawsuit, “who have served on the front lines of a pandemic for the past 18 months, are now being fired and their practices closed” for “adhering to their religious beliefs protected by the Constitution”.
He added: “Their plight deserves our attention.”
Justices Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh voted with the majority to authorize the warrant. In a brief statement, Barrett said she decided not to vote to grant such “extraordinary relief” in part because the case had been placed on the court’s emergency docket and the judges had not benefited from a full briefing and oral arguments.
Religious freedom issues
In recent months, judges had refused invitations to overturn vaccination mandates at Indiana University and New York schools, but the dispute in Maine centered on religious freedom issues.
Maine’s vaccination mandate — which requires designated health care facilities, dental providers and emergency service organizations to require their employees to be vaccinated — went into effect Friday. The workers who filed the lawsuit argued that it violated the Constitution and Title VII, the federal civil rights law that prohibits employment discrimination based on religion. Although Maine offers a limited exemption for certain medical situations, it does not consider requests for religious objections.
“Maine has clearly designated religious employees who refuse vaccination for religious reasons for particularly harsh treatment,” wrote Mathew Staver, an attorney with Liberty Counsel, representing the workers, in court documents. At the same time, Staver said the state “promotes and accommodates employees refusing vaccination for secular medical reasons.”
Staver said workers oppose vaccines because of how they were “developed, researched, tested, produced, or otherwise associated with development with fetal cell lines from elective abortions.”
This is an argument that has been made before. The Catholic Church and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church’s highest doctrinal authority, have struggled with moral permission to receive Covid-19 vaccines due to their distant relationship to developed fetal cell lines. from abortions in the 1970s and 1980s.
AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines were developed using aborted cell lines, although the final product did not contain fetal cells. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were not made from fetal cell lines, and the final product does not contain fetal cells, although their tests used these cell lines.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in a memo endorsed by Pope Francis that receiving the shot was morally permissible. “It is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” the note reads.
But health care workers, including a health care provider who operates his own private practice in the state, have always been opposed. The supplier does not want to receive the vaccine and he wants to honor the beliefs of his employees who also oppose it. When the mandate takes effect, he says he will face having his license revoked and his practice shut down.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey urged judges to uphold the warrant, saying the pandemic had “gripped” the state with 100,937 total confirmed cases and 1,122 deaths as of October 2021. He said the warrant was necessary to “prevent the spread of Covid” in high-risk settings and that it was not aimed at religious practice.
A medical exemption is necessary, he said, “because there are certain circumstances in which vaccination may have adverse health consequences, thereby harming that individual.”
This story was updated with additional details on Friday.