A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Maine’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers on, a move that will reignite the debate over religious exemptions.

In a unanimous ruling Thursday, a panel of three judges for the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found U.S. District Judge Jon Levy had not properly weighed the possible public health impact of religious exemptions, which are not allowed by the state’s policy, and ordered the lower court to review that portion of the case.

The original case, which named Gov. Janet Mills, former Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Nirav Shah and Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew as defendants, was brought in 2021 by eight former health care workers who lost their jobs after refusing to get the vaccine for religious reasons, as well as one former employer.

The suit argued that the plaintiffs have a religious right to refuse the vaccine over their belief that fetal stem cells from abortions were used to develop it. Plaintiffs also argued that the state mandate was discriminatory by allowing for medical exemptions, but not religious ones.

The health care workers originally filed their lawsuit anonymously, citing fears for their safety.

The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November 2021 challenging the group’s right to anonymity. The newspapers, which were represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argued that the plaintiffs “alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public’s interest in open legal proceedings,” according to court documents.


The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston ruled in July that the plaintiffs had to reveal their names in an amended complaint in order to continue the lawsuit. Seven of the nine original plaintiffs complied with the order, while the other two abandoned the lawsuit.

Last August, Levy dismissed the group’s lawsuit, saying that the workers failed to prove several claims, including that the COVID-19 vaccine requirement was different than any other vaccine requirement imposed on health care workers.

Maine law allowed health care workers to seek religious and philosophical exemptions to DHHS vaccine mandates until 2019, when the Legislature restricted exemptions to workers for whom vaccinations would be “medically inadvisable.” More than 72% of Mainers voted to retain the policy change in a state referendum in March 2020. The following summer, DHHS added the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of required shots for health care workers.

Thursday’s ruling affirmed Levy’s dismissal of several of the plaintiffs’ claims, including that their employers had violated federal law by not granting them exemptions to the vaccine mandate. But the panel found it was plausible that Maine was wrong to ban religious exemptions while allowing medical exemptions, since both policies could have similar impacts on public health and health care worker retention and availability.

Liberty Counsel, a religious law firm in Florida that represents the health care workers, celebrated Thursday’s ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Gov. Janet Mills trashed the health care heroes who were front-line responders,” Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver wrote. “But instead of a heroes’ parade, Mills violated their religious rights and booted them into the unemployment lines. Now, Gov. Mills and her administration will have to defend her actions in the court of law.”

Representatives for the Office of the Maine Attorney General did not respond to a request to discuss the ruling Thursday evening.

The judges noted that the decision was not an endorsement of the plaintiffs’ arguments. The case will return to the U.S. District Court in Portland, which will hear further arguments as to whether the mandate limits workers’ religious freedoms and, if so, whether the state’s interest in protecting public health justifies those limits.

The vaccine mandate currently remains in place.

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