Health care workers in Maine filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, the governor and major Maine health networks Wednesday, arguing that the state’s requirement that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 tramples on their religious freedoms.

The lawsuit also asks a federal judge in Bangor to impose a temporary order preventing the mandate from going into effect. Since Gov. Janet Mills announced the requirement under a state statute earlier this month, some health care workers have voiced vehement opposition, packing public meetings and mounting public demonstrations against the requirement.

The prospect of health care workers quitting or being fired by the Oct. 1 deadline places added pressure on already-taxed health care systems in Maine that were already stressed by COVID protocols, and among the already-dwindling ranks of small-town emergency medical workers, some of whom have not been vaccinated.

In addition to Mills, the lawsuit names state Center for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Nirav Shah, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, and health care providers Maine Health, Genesis Healthcare, Northern Light Health Foundation, and Maine General Health. To win a temporary halt to the requirement, the plaintiffs must show that they are likely to succeed on the merits of the case, and that in balancing the interests at hand, stopping the mandate is in the public’s interest.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor, was brought by a Florida-based group, Liberty Counsel, which advocates for the rights of Christian Americans and opposes actions they believe curtail religious freedom or contradict Christian beliefs, including a woman’s right to an abortion, the use of fetal tissue in medical research and the right of same-sex couples to marry, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which classifies Liberty Counsel as a hate group.

Liberty Counsel is headquartered in Orlando and was founded by a former dean of Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian university founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, and has close ties to the institution’s law school, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

There are no named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, but the action was brought on behalf of nine individuals whose requests for religious exemptions to the vaccination requirement were rejected, as well as 2,000 other unnamed healthcare workers. In at least one case, one plaintiff was fired from her job at Genesis Healthcare when she failed to get a vaccine by an Aug. 23 deadline, the lawsuit alleges.

The health care workers’ objections are rooted in scripture, their attorneys wrote, and in the broad principal of rejecting any medicine or procedure developed with or aided by the use of fetal tissue, and therefore abortion.

The lawsuit also argues that the Maine statute under which Mills issued the mandate is unconstitutional and flouts the constitutional right of free exercise of religion and federal civil rights law. State statute cannot usurp federal law, attorneys for the group argue.

Mills’s office deferred comment to the Attorney General’s Office, which will be defending against the suit. But in earlier comments, Mills has not backed away from the requirement, which has the backing of nearly every major organization representing healthcare organizations in the state.

The removal of religious exemptions for vaccination requirements in Maine predates the pandemic – it was passed into law in 2019 and goes into effect Sept. 1. The measure was originally designed to protect school children from outbreaks of preventable infectious diseases, like measles or mumps, but the statute has taken on new significance during the pandemic and amid widespread skepticism of the COVID vaccines. Republicans have vowed to introduce legislation to overturn the law, which also survived a ballot measure last year that sought to reverse it.

In a statement, Attorney General Aaron Frey pointed to a determination by public health experts that the COVID-19 vaccine, like many other required vaccinations for health care workers, will prevent the spread of a communicable disease, which is necessary to protect patients and the health care network statewide.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers were required to be immunized against two forms of measles, mumps, chicken pox, Hepatitis B and influenza.

Vaccination requirements have been in place for years, Frey said, and have not been challenged before. Federal courts and the Supreme Court have consistently upheld vaccination requirements elsewhere, most recently in a case where Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, whose Christian beliefs and identity became a central point in her confirmation hearings, declined to stop Indiana University from requiring students to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

“For many years the state has required health care workers to be vaccinated against various communicable diseases and, to our knowledge, that requirement has never been challenged,” Frey said. “The state has now simply added an additional disease – COVID-19 – to the list of ones for which health care workers must be vaccinated.”

The health care workers argue they are happy to follow other guidelines designed to stop the spread of COVID-19, including wearing facial coverings, submitting to testing and reporting requirements, and monitoring and reporting of symptoms, all of which are “reasonable conditions that were good enough to permit them to do their jobs for the last 18 months with no questions asked,” the workers’ attorneys argue.

“The Governor, through her COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate, has created a two-tiered system of exemptions, and placed religious beliefs and those who hold them in a class less favorable than other exemptions that Defendants are perfectly willing to accept,” the suit argues.

“In fact, last year the State said Plaintiffs were heroes because of their willingness to abide by the same conditions and requirements that Plaintiffs are willing to abide by now.”

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