Supreme Court allows vaccine mandate without religious opt-out

Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 23. The court says Maine can keep its vaccine mandate without religious opt-outs. Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images/TNS

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court refused to order Maine to allow religious exemptions to its new requirement that health care workers be inoculated against COVID-19.

Over three dissents the Supreme Court rejected a group of workers and one employer who said their religious views put them at risk of losing their jobs and health care practice. The challengers said they object to the three available vaccines because they have links to cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.

The Supreme Court order applies while litigation over Maine’s rules goes forward. The case marked the first time the court had been asked to say that a vaccine mandate must include a religious exemption.

The court previously allowed vaccine mandates that already had religious opt-outs. In August Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected a challenge to Indiana University’s requirement that all students be vaccinated unless they have a religious or medical exemption. Earlier this month, Justice Sonia Sotomayor let New York City require school employees to get shots.

The anonymous challengers said Maine is one of two states, along with Rhode Island, that requires vaccinations for health care workers without allowing a faith-based exemption. New York had a similar blanket requirement until a federal appeals court ordered it to allow religious opt-outs last month.

The Moderna Inc. and Pfizer Inc. mRNA vaccines were tested using a cell line that originated with an aborted fetus in the 1970s. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a different cell line during production and manufacturing. None of the vaccines contain aborted fetal cells.

Maine allowed religious and philosophical exceptions to its vaccine mandate until 2019, when the state legislature eliminated non-medical exemptions amid declining vaccination rates.

Maine for years required health care workers, daycare employees, schoolchildren and college students to be vaccinated against infectious diseases. The state added COVID-19 to its list in September and is set to start enforcing the rule on Friday.

The workers and employer said Maine is violating the Constitution as well as a federal civil rights law that bars religious discrimination in the workplace. The employees said the lack of a religious exemption meant they would effectively be barred from working anywhere in the state, while the employer said he risked having to shutter his practice.

“When we have demanded so much of our health care heroes, we owe them nothing less than the full measure of our own commitment to constitutional principles,” the group said in court papers.

Maine officials said its rule is a religiously neutral way to protect patients and those medically unable to get vaccinated. Maine told the court that the rate of infection in the state for people 12 and older is eight times higher among the unvaccinated.

“Maine added COVID-19 to the rule in order to protect its health care infrastructure, workers and patients, and vulnerable populations,” the state argued. “Requiring vaccination of all medically eligible health care workers protects public health by ensuring that all persons can receive necessary medical treatment, for COVID-19 or otherwise.”

Maine said its vaccine mandate isn’t as broad as the challengers claimed. The requirement doesn’t cover private physician practices or urgent care clinics, and it doesn’t affect employees who work remotely, the state said.

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