Last night, the Supreme Court voted 6-3 against blocking Maine’s vaccine mandate for health care workers. It was a sensible decision that could easily have gone the other way and kept the pandemic going even longer than it needs to.
Some background is useful here: Recently, several Christian healthcare workers in Maine alleged that the state violated their religious freedom by forcing them to get vaccinated as a condition of their employment. Except it’s not like that was a new thing. For decades now, Maine has required healthcare workers to be vaccinated against certain diseases. Between 2001 and 2019, the state allowed exemptions for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons. In 2019, however, lawmakers got rid of those last two exemptions — and in March of 2020, 72% of voters approved the change via a referendum — which was the right move.
Healthcare workers should be vaccinated, full stop, or else they pose a threat to the patients they’re working with. In 2021, of course, the COVID vaccine was added to the list of necessary shots. That’s when these healthcare workers sued.
According to the lawsuit, they said they couldn’t get the COVID vaccine because they believed “the development of the three COVID-19 vaccines employed or benefitted from the cell lines of aborted fetuses.”
A couple of weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Jon Levy rejected the lawsuit in no uncertain terms. He basically said the pandemic was serious, the vaccine laws were neutral (and not anti-religious), and no one was forcing the plaintiffs to get vaccinated against their will. But at the same time, the judge said, the state didn’t owe them a job. If they got fired for not getting vaccinated, that was their choice.
In this case, the Plaintiffs — healthcare workers and a healthcare provider — have shown that their refusal to be vaccinated based on their religious beliefs has resulted or will result in real hardships as it relates to their jobs. They have not, however, been prevented from staying true to their professed religious beliefs which, they claim, compel them to refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Neither have they seriously challenged the compelling governmental interest in mandating vaccinations for Maine’s healthcare workers, nor have they demonstrated that, as they contend, the vaccine mandate was motivated by any improper animus toward religion.
The 41-page ruling went through every constitutional objection the plaintiffs posed, dismantling all of them. Over and over, the plaintiffs claimed their rights were being violated without acknowledging the seriousness of the pandemic, the state’s desire to protect public health, the science behind herd immunity, why vaccinations matter, or their own hypocrisy on vaccines.
The judge definitely took note of that last one.
Additionally, in probing for covert animus, what matters is the State’s motive in removing the vaccine exceptions for religion and philosophy from the statute in 2019 because it was then — not in 2021 as Plaintiffs assert — that the change took effect. The Plaintiffs have not offered any reasoned explanation as to why Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers should be viewed as targeting religious beliefs while vaccines for other communicable diseases that may have involved fetal cell lines in their development or production should not. The record establishes that the Maine Legislature’s object in eliminating the religious and philosophical exemptions in 2019 was to further crucial public health goals, and nothing more.
It was a brilliant point. If the workers’ concern was research using the cells of aborted fetuses — now or in the past — then there was no reason to object to the COVID vaccines while remaining silent on other vaccines as well as Tylenol, Pepto-Bismol, and Tums.
But the workers appealed and, to the horror of many Court observers, the case quickly went up to the Supreme Court on an emergency appeal.
The Court voted 6-3 against overturning the earlier decision — but in their concurrence, both Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh noted that they weren’t ruling on the merits, only the technical aspects of how this case came to them. Neil Gorsuch, on the other hand, spoke for the dissenters, claiming that the religious workers had every right to potentially spread the virus while keeping their jobs.
He makes the argument that because medical exemptions are allowed, religious ones should be accepted automatically… which completely ignores how those two things are substantively different. He also suggests that because responsible people have gotten vaccinated — and Maine is doing relatively well on that front — there shouldn’t be any punishment for the irresponsible ones bringing this lawsuit. As if their negligence can be forgiven even though their work with the most vulnerable citizens.
Maine’s decision to deny a religious exemption in these circumstances doesn’t just fail the least restrictive means test, it borders on the irrational.
Thank goodness he was outnumbered this time. No one has some constitutional right to their job when their presence puts other people in danger.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State President and CEO Rachel Laser issued this statement welcoming the decision:
“The Supreme Court’s order upholds our country’s constitutional principle of church-state separation, which protects religious freedom for everyone and ensures we are all treated equally under the law. Religious freedom is not a right to risk other people’s lives, especially during a global pandemic that has already killed more than 700,000 people in the U.S. This order is in line with more than a century of court decisions that make clear the Constitution does not mandate religious exemptions from vaccination requirements.”
(Image via Shutterstock. Large portions of this article were published earlier)