Explainer: Supreme Court denies religious exemption request from Maine workers

October 30, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request for a religious exemption to the state of Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers on Oct. 29. The mandate, announced in August by Gov. Janet Mills, required that all healthcare, nursing home, and EMS workers receive their final vaccine dose by Sept. 17, 2021. A group of healthcare professionals at Northern Light Health opposing the vaccine requirement filed suit on religious grounds.

Earlier in October, a federal judge ruled against the challenge and a three judge panel at the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with that ruling. At the time of the initial ruling, 97% of the workers at Northern Light Health were fully vaccinated, and 130 workers had already resigned in protest of the state’s mandate order. The Supreme Court initially rejected an emergency request to intervene but left another opportunity for appeal before the order went into full effect on Oct. 29. The healthcare workers then filed that appeal to the Supreme Court, which took up the case on what is called the “shadow docket” –– which, as explained on a previous case, is a “procedure for expedited review of emergency proceedings that fall outside of the normal rhythm of oral arguments and decisions many are accustomed to.”

Why did the court rule against the healthcare workers?

The denial of the application for injunctive relief was handed down in a 6-3 decision. Because the court took this case up via the shadow docket, a traditional written opinion from the majority was not provided with the decision. However, some insight may be gleaned from a concurrence offered by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by Justice Brett Kavanugh. She writes, “applicants could use the emergency docket to force the Court to give a merits preview in cases that it would be unlikely to take—and to do so on a short fuse without benefit of full briefing and oral argument. In my view, this discretionary consideration counsels against a grant of extraordinary relief in this case, which is the first to address the questions presented.” 

In other words, it appears at least some justices among the six voting to deny the application were uncomfortable reviewing this case on an expedited basis and thereby not having the customary information presented to the court.

What makes this case unique?

This case, John Does 1-3 v. Mills, has some similarities to previous cases the justices have rejected, such as the recent appeal from New York City teachers and, prior to that, a challenge from Indiana University staff and students. 

Unlike those cases, though, the Maine requirement does not contain an exemption for religious reasons, though it does for medical reasons. This difference was central to the argument of the dissent authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. 

The dissent states, “This Court has explained that a law is not neutral and generally applicable if it treats ‘any comparable secular activity more favorably than religious exercise.’ Tandon v. Newsom . . . The State allows those invoking medical reasons to avoid the vaccine mandate on the apparent premise that these individuals can take alternative measures (such as the use of protective gear and regular testing) to safeguard their patients and co-workers. But the State refuses to allow those invoking religious reasons to do the very same thing.” 

The justices in the minority contend this should have led the court to apply a strict scrutiny test to the Maine requirement, meaning the state would have to demonstrate the mandate “serves a compelling interest and employs the least restrictive means available for doing so.” Ultimately, a majority of the court did not take this approach and thus denied the application by the healthcare workers. 

What does this mean for religious exemptions?

This result does not mean the challenge by the Maine healthcare workers is over. According to the Wall Street Journal, the decision “means a lower-court order upholding the mandate remains in place while the workers appeal through normal channels.” In all likelihood, additional challenges to other vaccine requirements will continue to materialize in the courts.

As Christians consider these cases, a previous ERLC resource, “Why Christians should navigate questions of vaccine mandates and religious exemptions with wisdom,” produced by Jason Thacker, who leads the Research Institute, is applicable. In this piece, Thacker writes:

Certain faith groups and denominations have claimed religious exemptions based on sincere religious convictions for various medical interventions; have consistently argued over time against the use of vaccines; or may have certain moral objections to the COVID vaccines in particular. Yet, pastors and ministry leaders must be aware that some people may seek a religious exemption to these mandates not out of any direct or meaningful religious objection or issue of faith but out of a desire to disregard the mandates that have been common throughout our nation’s history and frequently upheld by the courts.

According to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization that has long advocated for religious freedom throughout our society, “(US) Courts have ruled for over a century that the government may require mandatory vaccines in certain circumstances. Religious objectors may be entitled to accommodations in some circumstances.” ADF also encourages anyone seeking these types of religious accommodations or exemptions from vaccine mandates to seek to determine whether one’s objections actually rise to the level of a religious objection, not simply a medical, social, or political objection. ADF states that “many people have medical or other concerns which do not rise to the level of an actual religious belief. A belief that taking a vaccine is unwise or could be harmful will normally be considered a medical or health objection, not a religious objection.” Defined claims to religious objection must be taken seriously, but claiming a religious objection is no guarantee that public or private entities will recognize it.

As this case and others progress, the ERLC will continue to monitor all developments related to religious liberty and advocate for this first freedom in the courts, on Capitol Hill, and in our culture.

F. Brent Leatherwood

F. Brent Leatherwood serves as the president for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Since September 2021, Brent served as the acting president of the ERLC, where he provided steady leadership for the organization’s staff and continued the mission of the ERLC during the interim period. Prior to serving as … Read More