Last week, the First Circuit Court of Appeals rejected challenges to a Maine emergency rule requiring that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19. Originally scheduled to take effect on August 12, 2021, all Maine workers in licensed health care facilities were required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Under Maine law, a health care worker may claim an exemption from the requirement only if a medical practitioner certifies that vaccination “may be medically inadvisable.”
The state rule made no provision for objections to the mandate based on religion. The plaintiffs alleged that this requirement violates constitutional rights as well as Title VII’s prohibition against religious discrimination. Several health care workers sued the local and state government, but they also brought suit against their employers. The health care workers sought a preliminary injunction to prevent enforcement of the regulation against them.
The First Circuit rejected these arguments, holding that the rule is constitutional because it is neutral, meaning that it does not allow any non-medical exemptions, regardless of whether they are based on religious, philosophical, or other grounds. The medical exemption is a justifiable exception to the rule based on the clear and compelling public safety reasons for that carve out.
Federal courts have long upheld the authority of state and local governments to implement vaccine mandates. This decision may influence other appellate courts considering similar challenges to state vaccination requirements. The same legal reasoning may not apply to federal vaccine or test mandates, however, such as the upcoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s emergency standard for COVID-19.