Maine may ban religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandate, judge says

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By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – A U.S. judge ruled on Wednesday that Maine could ban religious exemptions from its requirement that state healthcare workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, a day after a judge ordered in New York to allow such exemptions from its mandate.

U.S. District Judge Jon Levy in Bangor, Maine, said healthcare workers who brought the case have not been prevented from staying true to their religious beliefs, although denying the vaccine will cost them their use.

The workers also failed to show that Maine officials were motivated by inappropriate animosity towards religion or that the state had no compelling reason to impose the vaccine requirement, said Levy, who has was appointed by former President Barack Obama.

“All healthcare workers in Maine have the legal right to seek reasonable accommodation for their sincere religious beliefs and forcing COVID injections without exemption is illegal,” said Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal advocacy group that represented the workers.

The group filed an appeal with the 1st United States Court of Appeals in Boston and requested that the decision be stayed during the appeal process.

COVID-19 vaccines have become highly politicized in the United States, where only 66% of Americans are vaccinated, well below the original targets of the Biden administration.

Maine Governor Janet Mills announced her state’s mandate on August 12, and workers have until October 29 to comply.

Exemptions were allowed for medical reasons. Unlike most states, Maine does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions from vaccine requirements.

The plan was challenged by a group of medical professionals who said they opposed COVID-19 vaccines because some vaccines were developed from cell lines of aborted fetuses. The workers also sued several health care companies where they work.

Maine removed religious exemptions from mandatory vaccines in 2019, and voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum challenging the law last year. As a result, the mandate of the COVID-19 vaccine complies with state law and does not distinguish between religion, Levy said.

By comparison, he said the New York mandate originally allowed religious exemptions, then removed them as the deadline approached. New York also allows religious exemptions for other mandatory shooting, Levy said.

At least 24 states have imposed vaccine requirements on workers, typically in healthcare.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston, editing by Noeleen Walder, Marguerita Choy and Bill Berkrot)


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