The health care workers argued Maine was an “extreme outlier” compared to other states because its vaccine mandate lacks a religious exemption while having a medical exemption.
“Almost every other state has found a way to protect against the same virus without trampling religious liberty—including states that have smaller populations and much greater territory than Maine,” the health care workers said in their motion to the Supreme Court.
The vote on Friday was 6-3, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., and Neil M. Gorsuch dissenting.
“This case presents an important constitutional question, a serious error, and an irreparable injury,” Gorsuch wrote in his dissent. “Where many other States have adopted religious exemptions, Maine has charted a different course. There, healthcare workers who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months are now being fired and their practices shuttered. All for adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs. Their plight is worthy of our attention. I would grant relief.”
The case was heard on the emergency docket, meaning the health care workers could still argue their case through the court’s regular appeals process, The Washington Post reported.
The six justices in the majority did not give a reason for their votes, but Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote that she wasn’t sure this kind of case should be decided without a full briefing and oral arguments.
Maine has required health care workers to be vaccinated against contagious diseases such as measles since 1989 and previously had a religious exemption. In 2019, the state eliminated the religious exemption for health-care workers, day- care employees, schoolchildren and college students, The Post said.
The Maine attorney general, Aaron Frey, said dropping non-medical exemptions was only designed to increase the overall vaccination rate.
When the state added the COVID vaccine to the list of required vaccinations this year, some health care workers complained, saying the vaccines in use were derived from fetal cells. The nine workers sued to stop the mandate and the case worked its way through lower courts before ending up with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills applauded the high court’s decision. “This rule protects healthcare workers, their patients, and the stability of our health care system in the face of this dangerous virus,” Mills said in a statement. “Just as vaccination defeated smallpox and vaccination defeated polio, vaccination is the way to defeat Covid-19.”