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Supreme Court rules against workers seeking religious exemption to vaccine mandate

Maine’s vaccine mandate affecting health care workers will remain in place for now

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Photo illustration by Michelle Budge

For the first time in months, the Supreme Court has ruled against a religious freedom claim.

Justices announced Friday that the court will not intervene to help health care workers with faith-based objections to Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The policy, unlike most of its kind, does not offer the possibility of receiving a religious exemption.

A doctor and eight other health care workers challenged the law’s approach to religion, arguing that state officials could not ignore their faith-based concerns. As a result of the court’s 6-3 decision, these workers will risk losing their jobs if they continue refusing the vaccine.

Friday’s ruling is surprising in light of the court’s recent religious freedom record and conservative majority. Just this summer, the justices ruled in favor of a Catholic foster care agency making similar legal claims.

Justice Neil Gorsuch — who, along with Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, would have granted the workers’ request for relief — cited that June ruling in his explanation of why he felt Friday’s decision was wrong.

Gorsuch noted that in the foster care case, as well as others, the court has said the government can only rarely refuse to offer religious accommodations. Because Maine’s mandate allows for medical exemptions, state officials should have to prove why offering faith-based exemptions would, as they claim, pose a unique risk, he wrote.

“It seems Maine will respect even mere trepidation over vaccination as sufficient, but only so long as it is phrased in medical and not religious terms. That kind of double standard is enough to trigger at least a more searching (strict scrutiny) review,” Gorsuch said.

Robin Fretwell Wilson, an expert on religious freedom law, predicted this reaction in an August interview with the Deseret News. The court’s recent First Amendment rulings put vaccine mandates “in the crosshairs,” she said.

What Wilson and others didn’t anticipate was that not all conservative justices would share Gorsuch’s concerns. Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, sided with the court’s three liberals in ruling against the unvaccinated workers.

Friday’s decision will almost certainly not be the last we hear from the Supreme Court on religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. Cases have been filed across the country over schools’, employers’ and even military officials’ handling of faith-based accommodation requests.