A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by health care workers in Maine who wanted to be exempt on religious grounds from the state’s health care worker mandate for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Nine initially unidentified workers sued Gov. Janet Mills and other state officials on Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate in August 2021, arguing that the state’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 violated their religious freedoms. The plaintiffs worked for MaineHealth, Genesis Healthcare, Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center and MaineGeneral Health.
On Thursday, US District Judge Jon Levy dismissed the case, saying the workers failed to prove several claims, including that the COVID-19 vaccine requirement was different from any other vaccine requirement imposed on health care workers.
Levy also concluded that the mandate was not discriminatory because it allowed medical exemptions but not religious exemptions, and that hospitals and state officials had not conspired to deprive health care workers of their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.
“Plaintiffs’ contention that the hospital defendants’ expression of support for the rule after its adoption constitutes evidence of a civil conspiracy is implausible,” Levy said in the dismissal filing.
The health care workers initially filed their lawsuit anonymously, citing fears for their safety.
The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November 2021 challenging the group’s right to anonymity. The newspapers, which were represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that the plaintiffs’ “alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public interest in open legal proceedings,” according to court documents.
The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in July that the plaintiffs had to disclose their names in an amended complaint in order to proceed with the lawsuit. Seven of the original nine plaintiffs complied with the order.
The plaintiffs named in the dismissal document were Alicia Lowe, formerly a MaineHealth employee; Debra Chalmers and Garth Berenyi, formerly of Genesis Health; Jennifer Barbalias, Natalie Salavarria and Adam Jones, formerly of Northern Light Eastern Maine Medical Center; and Nicole Giroux, formerly of MaineGeneral Health.
Defendants in the lawsuit included Mills, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Jeanne Lambrew, head of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
Mills’ office did not respond to a request for an interview Friday night.
Levy’s decision means that health care workers in Maine still must be vaccinated against the coronavirus infection.
Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based conservative group that represented the plaintiffs, argued that Maine should offer a religious exemption because it offers a medical exemption. The rule treats people who claim a religious exemption less favorably, they said, and therefore violates their right to freely practice their religion.
The state argued that the two types of exemptions are not comparable and should not be viewed the same way under the law. Maine stopped accepting religious and philosophical exemptions for all mandatory vaccines to protect people who could not receive those vaccines because of their medical conditions. The attorney general’s office said the reasoning still stands.
In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a federal mandate of COVID-19 vaccinations for workers, but many of Maine’s largest employers said they would still encourage or require their employees to be vaccinated.