Healthcare Workers’ Religious Freedom Exemption Fails to Convince First Circuit to Block Maine Vaccine Mandate

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[co-author: Sibilla Grenon]

A three-judge panel for the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the lower court’s order denying plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against Maine’s Covid-19 vaccine mandate requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated. Plaintiffs in the case had argued that exceptions to the mandate must be permitted for religious objections. Judge Sandra Lynch wrote the opinion for the court and rejected plaintiffs’ arguments based on the Constitutional Free Exercise Clause, Supremacy Clause, and Title VII. The unanimous opinion stated that “when a neutral and generally applicable law incidentally burdens free exercise rights, we will sustain the law against constitutional challenge if it is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.” As such, the panel affirmed the denial of plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction and allowed Maine’s Center for Disease Control’s vaccine mandate to be enforced.

Plaintiffs filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday. Justice Breyer had previously declined to hear plaintiffs’ appeal because the merits of the case had not yet been decided. Following Tuesday’s First Circuit decision, the Supreme Court may opt to hear the case, which would require the Court to consider the underlying questions of constitutionally protected religious liberties in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Previously, the Supreme Court found in Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1944) that “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” The Prince case rejected religious exemptions for child labor laws, but the Court’s holding may have applicability to the present pandemic.

On a more practical level, the First Circuit’s decision imposes a definitive obligation for Maine’s healthcare workers to be vaccinated regardless of their potential religious or philosophical objections. The opinion will likely carry weight in other lawsuits raising similar challenges to vaccine mandates

The First Circuit’s decision precedes the Biden administration’s OSHA federal vaccine mandates, which will be issued imminently.

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