U.S. Supreme Court declines to halt vaccine requirement for Maine health care workers seeking religious exemption

by | Nov 4, 2021

By a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to issue an emergency injunction sought by a group of Maine health care workers against the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously declined to issue a preliminary injunction, which is being sought by the workers on the grounds that it lacks a religious exemption.

Although there was no majority opinion, a concurring opinion written by Justice Amy Coney Barrett and joined by Justice Brett Kavanaugh found it inappropriate to take up cases like this on an emergency basis because that standard could “force the Court to give a merits preview in cases that it would be unlikely to take – and to do so on a short fuse without benefit of a full briefing and oral argument.”

Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito would have granted the injunction, citing the state’s willingness to grant medical, but not religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement, and the fact that other states do provide religious exemptions. “Maine’s decision to deny a religious exemption in these circumstances,” Gorsuch declared, “borders on the irrational.”

The ruling leaves Maine’s mandate intact without a religious exemption. A petition asking the Supreme Court for a full review of the 1st Circuit decision is expected.

Meanwhile, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week lifted temporary injunctions that previously halted New York State’s removal of religious exemptions from its vaccine mandate for health care workers. The Appeals Court issued its order following oral arguments in the case; the health care workers responded with an emergency application with the Supreme Court to reinstate the injunction.

In Illinois, the state legislature has removed the religious exemption in the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act for employer mandates of the COVID-19 vaccine.  Via Religion Clause, JDSupra reports that the law has “recently gained notoriety as a way for individuals to avoid complying with employer-mandated vaccine and testing policies and other COVID-19 safety measures.”

Lastly, the EEOC last week issued new guidance to employers regarding employees who request exemptions from vaccine requirements. Here is a sample:

Must an employer provide the religious accommodation preferred by an employee if there are other possible accommodations that also are effective in eliminating the religious conflict and do not cause an undue hardship under Title VII?


No.  If there is more than one reasonable accommodation that would resolve the conflict between the vaccination requirement and the sincerely held religious belief without causing an undue hardship under Title VII, the employer may choose which accommodation to offer.

For more on this topic check out the latest episode of BJC’s fantastic podcast Respecting Religion. There, BJC Executive Director Amanda Tyler and General Counsel Holly Hollman discuss the issues surrounding religious liberty and vaccine requirements.