WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Friday declined to block a vaccine mandate for health care workers in Maine over objections that it doesn’t include a religious exemption, the latest example of the high court steering clear of the issue.
The suit focused specifically on the lack of a religious exemption. The court’s ruling, which came over the objection of three of its conservatives, allows the state requirement to remain in place while litigation continues.
In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett noted the court has “discretionary judgment” about whether to take an emergency appeal like the Maine case. Without that, she wrote, “applicants could use the emergency docket to force the court” to give a “merits preview in cases” on a “short fuse.” The court’s emergency docket has come under considerable criticism in recent weeks for doing exactly that.
“In my view, this discretionary consideration counsels against a grant of extraordinary relief in this case, which is the first to address the questions presented,” Barrett wrote in an opinion joined by Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, announced in August that the state would require health care workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs. While the state includes a medical exemption for employees it removed the ability of workers to opt out of the vaccine requirement by citing religious objections.
The Supreme Court had previously quickly rejected challenges to vaccine mandates brought by students at Indiana University as well as teachers in New York City. But neither of those cases dealt with the religious component because the mandates at issue in those other cases included a religious exemption.
Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a dissent joined by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said he would have blocked the mandate.
“This case presents an important constitutional question, a serious error, and an irreparable injury,” Gorsuch wrote. “Where many other states have adopted religious exemptions, Maine has charted a different course. There, healthcare workers who have served on the front line of a pandemic for the last 18 months are now being fired and their practices shuttered. All for adhering to their constitutionally protected religious beliefs. Their plight is worthy of our attention.”
The court’s conservative majority has looked favorably on religious freedom claims in the past, including in the context of the pandemic. In a series of rulings earlier this year, the court shot down government restrictions on indoor gatherings that limited the number of people who could worship inside churches and synagogues.
Maine’s requirement took effect Friday. It’s not clear how many health care workers are opposed to the requirement.
“Our nation is at a seminal crossroad whereby only this court can provide the necessary relief to prevent an onslaught of religious discrimination throughout the republic,” an attorney for the health care workers told the court.
A federal district court rejected the workers’ request and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit let that ruling stand.
The Supreme Court’s emergency docket – which more recently has been referred to as its shadow docket – is where litigants come for quick action, usually to temporarily block enforcement of a law while courts continue to consider the merits of the challenger’s arguments.
Unlike the merits docket, the high court doesn’t hear oral arguments about emergency requests and its opinions – if it issues them at all – are usually far less thorough. But the outcomes can nevertheless have major implications.
In a shadow docket case this fall, the court allowed Texas’ ban on abortions after six weeks to stand. In the weeks before that, it unwound President Joe Biden’s eviction moratorium and required the administration to keep migrants seeking asylum in Mexico.
But the court has made a number of unusual moves since then, which some have read as responding to the criticism. That includes moving the Texas abortion case to the merits docket so that the justices could hear arguments in the case Monday. The court also shifted the emergency case of a death row inmate seeking religious exercise rights in the execution chamber to its regular docket last month.
Arguments in that case are set for Nov. 9.