The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a religious exemption to the state of Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers on Oct. 29. The mandate, announced in August by Gov. Janet Mills, required that all healthcare, nursing home, and EMS workers receive their final vaccine dose by Sept. 17, 2021. A group of healthcare professionals at Northern Light Health opposing the vaccine requirement filed suit on religious grounds.
Earlier in October, a federal judge ruled against the challenge and a three judge panel at the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with that ruling. At the time of the initial ruling, 97% of the workers at Northern Light Health were fully vaccinated, and 130 workers had already resigned in protest of the state’s mandate order. The Supreme Court initially rejected an emergency request to intervene but left another opportunity for appeal before the order went into full effect on Oct. 29. The healthcare workers then filed that appeal to the Supreme Court, which took up the case on what is called the “shadow docket” –– which, as explained on a previous case, is a “procedure for expedited review of emergency proceedings that fall outside of the normal rhythm of oral arguments and decisions many are accustomed to.”
Why Did the Court Rule Against the Healthcare Workers?
The denial of the application for injunctive relief was handed down in a 6-3 decision. Because the court took this case up via the shadow docket, a traditional written opinion from the majority was not provided with the decision. However, some insight may be gleaned from a concurrence offered by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Justice Brett Kavanugh. She writes, “applicants could use the emergency docket to force the Court to give a merits preview in cases that it would be unlikely to take—and to do so on a short fuse without benefit of full briefing and oral argument. 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.”
What Makes This Case Unique?
This case, John Does 1-3 v. Mills, has some similarities to previous cases the justices have rejected, such as the recent appeal from New York City teachers and, prior to that, a challenge from Indiana University staff and students.
Unlike those cases, though, the Maine requirement does not contain an exemption for religious reasons, though it does for medical reasons. This difference was central to the argument of the dissent authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The dissent states, “This Court has explained that a law is not neutral and generally applicable if it treats ‘any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.’ Tandon v. Newsom . . . The State allows those invoking medical reasons to avoid the vaccine mandate on the apparent premise that these individuals can take alternative measures (such as the use of protective gear and regular testing) to safeguard their patients and co-workers. But the State refuses to allow those invoking religious reasons to do the very same thing.”
The justices in the minority contend this should have led the court to apply a strict scrutiny test to the Maine requirement, meaning the state would have to demonstrate the mandate “serves a compelling interest and employs the least restrictive means available for doing so.” Ultimately, a majority of the court did not take this approach and thus denied the application by the healthcare workers.
What Does This Mean for Religious Exemptions?
This result does not mean the challenge by the Maine healthcare workers is over. According to the Wall Street Journal, the decision “means a lower-court order upholding the mandate remains in place while the workers appeal through normal channels.” In all likelihood, additional challenges to other vaccine requirements will continue to materialize in the courts.