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Judge: Maine healthcare workers can't seek religious vaccine exemption

A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Maine is not required to offer a religious exemption for healthcare workers to the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that Maine is not required to offer a religious exemption for healthcare workers to the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

Oct. 13 (UPI) -- A federal judge on Wednesday ruled that healthcare workers in Maine will not be able to seek an exemption from the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate on religious grounds.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jon Levy means healthcare workers will be required to get vaccinated against the virus by Friday before the mandate, which took effect Oct. 1, will be enforced by Gov. Janet Mills on Oct. 29.

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Levy's ruling comes in response to a lawsuit filed by the Liberty Counsel, a national religious non-profit, on behalf of eight healthcare workers and one provider citing a rejection of any medicine or procedure developed with or aided by the use of fetal tissue.

The group also argued that the mandate violates the First Amendment and that the state must offer a religious exemption because it offers a medical one.

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The state countered by saying that the two types of exemption are not comparable and should not be viewed the same way under the law.

Levy ruled that a religious exemption "would not address a risk associated with the vaccine mandate's central objectives."

"Reducing the risk of adverse medical consequences for a high-risk segment of the population is essential to achieving the public health objective of the vaccine mandate," he wrote.

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He also stated that the mandate did not prevent healthcare workers from "staying true to their professed religious beliefs" nor had the plaintiffs demonstrated that the mandate was "motivated by any improper animus toward religion."

"Both the serious risk of illness and death associated with the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the efforts by state and local governments to reduce that risk have burdened most aspects of modern life," Levy stated. "In this case, the plaintiffs -- healthcare workers and a healthcare provider -- have shown that their refusal to be vaccinated based on their religious beliefs has resulted in or will result in real hardships as it relates to their jobs."

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey praised the ruling in a statement Wednesday.

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"We are pleased with the decision and will continue to vigorously defend the requirement that healthcare workers in Maine be vaccinated against COVID-19," Frey said. "Getting vaccinated is a simple and commonsense thing you can do to protect not only yourself, but also your loved ones, co-workers, and the community."

The governor's office has estimated the mandate will apply to more than 150,000 healthcare workers. As of Oct. 3, 149 of the 35,500 workers at the state's two largest healthcare networks, MaineHealth and Northern Light, had resigned in protest.

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Wednesday's decision comes after U.S. District Judge David Hurd ruled New York must allow healthcare workers to seek a religious exemption.

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