Health care workers who say Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate violated their First Amendment rights scored a victory Thursday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First District.
In a 42-page decision written by U.S. District Court Judge Sandra Lynch, a three-judge panel reversed a lower district court’s ruling that the plaintiffs in the case had no basis to claim that their First Amendment rights had been violated by Gov. Mills and the State of Maine.
The plaintiffs are all Maine health care workers who lost their jobs because they objected on religious grounds to the experimental COVID-19 vaccine. They objected for religious reasons because of the connection between the manufacture of the vaccines and aborted fetal tissue.
The court upheld the ruling for District of Maine Judge Jon Levy that the plaintiffs’ did not have a civil rights discrimination claim against their employers. But they reasoned that the First Amendment claim was viable because similar exemptions had been provided on a secular basis.
“We agree with the district court that the complaint’s factual allegations establish that violating the Mandate in order to provide the plaintiffs’ requested accommodation would have caused undue hardship for the Providers, and so affirm the dismissal of the Title VII claims,” the panel said.
“But we conclude that the plaintiffs’ complaint states claims for relief under the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses, as 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,” they said.
In other words, because Maine would allow mandate exemptions for secular medical reasons, but not for religious reasons, the selective enforcement of the mandate constituted a violation of religious protections established by the First Amendment.
The ruling compared the case to instances elsewhere in the country where states decided to allow liquor stores to remain open while forcing houses of worship to close.
The judges reasoned that the secular medical exemption, which was allowed, would pose a similar threat to Maine’s goal of achieving high vaccination rates as a religious exemption, which Mills forced employers to prohibit.
Mat Staver, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in this case, said the ruling was a big victory for his clients and a big victory for religious liberty.
Staver said the ruling would allow the case to return to district court, re-enter discovery, and further show the “destruction” and “discrimination” the mandate caused for health care workers.
“The judges clearly understood the issues on these matters. And we’re looking forward to continuing the litigation on this case,” said Staver.
Staver didn’t hold back in characterizing the motivations of the Mills Administration or the role the Maine’s largest newspapers played in intimidating his clients.
Maine’s largest newspapers filed in 2021 to reveal the names of two individual plaintiffs who had previously joined the case as “John Does” or “Jane Does,” assuming anonymity to protect themselves from recrimination. While the State and the Court knew their identities, they were held under seal.
Staver said the Press Herald, Sun Journal, Kennebec Journal, and Morning Sentinel filed to unseal their identities for ideological reasons and not for any journalistic purpose.
“When the case first was filed, in the very newspapers that filed to get their names, the comments sections were filled with hate and anger against our clients. They wanted them to be hanged, they wanted them to be run out of town, they wanted them to lose their jobs, they wanted them to be harmed,” Staver said.
“I believe that the media did not have a legitimate media interest in revealing the names other than to intimidate them, so that they hoped in doing so they would withdraw from the case, but they did not,” he said.
The treatment of religious individuals under the Mills’ administration’s vaccine mandate is comparable to a separate case involving Maine and religious schools, Staver said. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Maine law that excluded religious schools from a state voucher program.
“The state of Maine lost that because they were showing hostility toward religion with regards to the voucher case, and they lost at the United States Supreme Court. So I think there is a pattern, certainly with this administration, of having hostility toward people of faith,” said Staver.
“I think you see that very clearly in the forcing of this mandate. This is not just a situation where they say the state is not going to individually grant a religious exemption. This goes far beyond because what Mills and her administration did was say, no employer can even consider a religious exemption under Title Seven, and if they do, they’ll be fined every day and lose their license because of penalties,” Staver said.
“So it’s pretty significant what this administration has done to restrict and target religion,” he said.
The lawsuit named as defendants Gov. Mills, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, and former Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah.
Shah has since moved on to become the principal deputy to the national CDC Director and has been endorsed by Maine Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins to take the top job at that agency.
Staver said the result of this case would have massive implications not just for Maine, but for religious freedom in the U.S.
“We’re frankly looking very much forward to going to discovery and holding Governor mills and the Maine authorities accountable for this terrible and, frankly, unconstitutional decision,” said Staver.
Staver is the founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit that litigates on behalf of religious freedom.
Asked to comment on the ruling, a spokesperson for Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey said in an email, “No comment.”
Frey is currently under investigation for engaging in a romantic relationship with a married subordinate who reported directly to him and for failing to disclose that relationship for eight months. The investigation is being conducted at the request of legislative leadership by an outside consultant.
Here’s the text of ruling:
Correction: An earlier version of this story said District of Maine Judge Jon Levy authored today’s ruling. In fact, a three-judge panel of the First District Court overturned Levy’s decision, in part, and Judge Sandra Lynch, a Clinton appointee, authored the ruling. We regret the error; the story has been edited for accuracy.