A group of Maine newspapers filed a federal court motion Wednesday seeking to reveal the identity of plaintiffs in a closely watched lawsuit challenging the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers.

Nine unnamed health care workers sued the state in August in U.S. District Court in Portland, seeking a religious exemption to the mandate. The state does not allow employees of hospitals, nursing homes and some other health care providers to opt out of COVID-19 shots for religious reasons. The court allowed the plaintiffs to proceed with their case anonymously.

On Oct. 29, the U.S. Supreme Court for a second time refused to grant an emergency injunction sought by the plaintiffs, who were trying to block the mandate that took effect that day. The lawsuit remains active, however, and a group providing legal support to the plaintiffs has pledged to continue fighting the mandate.

The motion filed Wednesday by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal asks the federal district court to reconsider its Sept. 2 decision to allow the plaintiffs to remain anonymous.

“Keeping the names of these plaintiffs secret deprives the public of important information,” said Steve Greenlee, managing editor of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

“This isn’t a private case like a custody dispute,” Greenlee said. “The litigation in question is challenging the way our leaders are handling a public health crisis. Our judicial system should be transparent in matters of community concern.”

The newspapers assert that the plaintiffs’ anonymity violates the Constitution because it denies the media and the public access to basic information that is guaranteed under the First Amendment. They say it also threatens to curtail a wide variety of other information that could be withheld because it might reveal the identities of the plaintiffs, who are named Jane Does 1-6 and John Does 1-3 in court documents.

“If (the) plaintiffs are permitted to continue to pursue their claims in this matter pseudonymously, this court will necessarily be asked to take further steps to preserve their anonymity – such as closing the courtroom during a plaintiff’s testimony – that would further deprive the (newspapers) of their presumptive rights of access to court proceedings and records in this case,” the motion states.

Sigmund Schutz, attorney for the newspapers, called it the “snowball effect” and said it would undermine a fundamental principle of the U.S. justice system.

“Our court system doesn’t allow people to litigate anonymously, especially on an issue of great importance to so many people,” Schutz said. “We believe the public has a right to know who filed this lawsuit. We don’t believe they have a right to litigate anonymously.”

Represented by Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit Christian law firm based in Florida, the plaintiffs claim that “public disclosure of their personal identities, personal medical decisions relating to the COVID-19 vaccines, personal religious beliefs concerning the issues underlying the above-captioned cause, and other personally identifying information would cause them to decline to further pursue their claims in this action,” according to court documents.

The plaintiffs also fear “retribution, reprisal and ostracization because of their sincerely held religious beliefs concerning the COVID-19 vaccines and the mandates concerning such purported vaccines,” their attorney, David Schmid, said in an affidavit.

Joining the newspapers’ challenge as co-counsel is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a nonprofit legal advocacy group that protects First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.

“This case could have significant ramifications throughout the state of Maine and could impact other states,” said Shannon Jankowski, senior legal fellow with the group based in Washington, D.C.

Rule 10 of federal civil procedure requires parties in lawsuits to identify themselves, Jankowski said. That rule is overruled rarely, but sometimes judges allow it in cases involving victims of sexual assault, she said.

If the plaintiffs in this case are allowed to proceed anonymously, courtrooms could be closed when they testify, and documents could be withheld or severely redacted, Jankowski said.

“This would have a significant impact on the public’s ability to understand the issues and arguments presented in the case,” Jankowski said.

The case is being watched around the country as more state and federal vaccine mandates are implemented and challenged in the courts.

The Supreme Court’s latest decision against an emergency injunction in the Maine case was not unanimous, and three conservative justices wrote a lengthy dissent that took the side of the plaintiffs.

The Maine plaintiffs’ appeal is the first challenge to a statewide mandate that has reached the Supreme Court. The justices previously turned away students at Indiana University and teachers in New York City who objected to being vaccinated. Both the university and city allow people to seek religious exemptions.

Only New York and Rhode Island also have vaccine mandates for health care workers that lack religious exemptions. Both are the subject of legal fights and a court has allowed workers in New York to seek religious exemptions while the lawsuit plays out.


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