A lawsuit challenging Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers was revived on May 25 by a federal appeals court.
U.S. District Judge Jon Levy, an Obama appointee, wrongly tossed the case when he ruled in 2022 that the mandate is “rationally based,” judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit said in the new decision.
“It is plausible, based on the plaintiffs’ allegations and in the absence of further factual development, that the mandate treats comparable secular and religious activity dissimilarly without adequate justification,” U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch, a Clinton appointee, said.
Maine’s 2021 mandate prohibited religious exemptions from the mandate but not medical ones, which was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the health care workers, who were fired for not being vaccinated, said in the suit.
“Title VII d does not mandate that employers provide the specific accommodation requested by an employee, nor does it require employers to provide accommodations that would require the employer to violate state law,” the judge said.
He also said state officials did not violate the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, citing how the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that “whether two activities are comparable for purposes of the Free Exercise Clause must be judged against the asserted government interest that justifies the regulation.”
“A medical exemption to state-mandated vaccines is fundamentally different and, therefore, not comparable to a religious exemption because a medical exemption aligns with the State’s interest in protecting public health and, more specifically, medically vulnerable individuals from illness and infectious diseases, while non-medical exemptions, including religious exemptions, do not,” he ruled.
The appeals court panel agreed that the mandate does not violate Title VII. But the case can move forward on the possibility it clashes with constitutional protections, the judges said.
The Free Exercise Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” while another part of the Constitution says that “no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Previous court rulings have found a law subject to review if it “treat[s] any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.”
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