Nine plaintiffs who anonymously sued Gov. Janet Mills over a COVID-19 mandate for health care workers will appeal a U.S. District Court judge’s decision requiring them to disclose their names by June 7.

The group filed its complaint in federal court last August, before the vaccine mandate for employees of designated Maine health care facilities went into effect Oct. 29.

Using pseudonyms, the health care workers argued that it was their religious right to refuse the vaccine over their belief that fetal stem cells from abortions were used to develop it. The state mandate does not allow for religious exemptions.

The Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Sun Journal filed a motion in November challenging the group’s right to file the complaint anonymously.

In his 13-page ruling Tuesday, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Jon D. Levy said he at first allowed the group to withhold their names because they argued they were afraid of the “public passions concerning mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations,” and that they were at “a heightened risk of severe social stigma and worse” if their identities were revealed.

“In the final analysis, however, there is a near total absence of proof that their expressed fears are objectively reasonable,” Levy wrote Tuesday. “The Plaintiffs’ privacy interests have not been shown to outweigh the public interest associated with the presumption of openness that applies to civil proceedings.”


Attorneys for the unnamed health care workers did not respond to requests Wednesday afternoon to discuss their appeal. They are represented by Maine attorney Steve Whiting, and lawyers from Liberty Counsel, a conservative, religious law firm based in Florida that has participated in several lawsuits against Maine and other states over COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions. Nationally, the firm also has opposed safe and legal access to abortions and same-sex marriage, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the firm as a hate group.

Before filing the notice to appeal, a spokesperson for Liberty Counsel told the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday night that the firm would not speak with reporters about Levy’s ruling because of the paper’s involvement in the lawsuit.

In an emailed statement Wednesday, attorney Sigmund Schutz, who represents the newspapers, said he plans to “vigorously defend” Levy’s order.

“Chief Judge Levy’s decision vindicates the bedrock principle of the American justice system that courts operate in secret only in exceptional circumstances,” Schutz wrote.

Shannon Jankowski, staff attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, has joined Schutz as co-counsel. Jankowski said Wednesday that this is the only case the committee is involved in related to vaccine mandates, but that there are several court cases around the country in which people using pseudonyms have tried to challenge mandates. Jankowski said “hundreds” of other people around the country have filed complaints concerning vaccine mandates in their own names.

In Arizona in January, a judge denied a federal employee’s motion to anonymously sue President Biden over the U.S. government’s vaccine mandate. At about the same time in Colorado, a judge agreed to let a group of university employees anonymously challenge their employer’s mandate.

“These plaintiffs are attempting to invalidate a vaccine mandate that applies throughout the state of Maine,” Jankowski said of the anonymous plaintiffs in the Maine lawsuit. “This is something that has broad-ranging impacts on all citizens of Maine, and the public has the right to know who these plaintiffs are, what role they play in the health care system. … It’s important information for the public to be able to assess for themselves what’s going on in this case.”

Levy is still considering the lawsuit against the vaccine mandate. Meanwhile, federal judges have refused to block the mandate, which has been in effect since last Oct. 29. The state’s major health care providers reported at the time that most workers chose to get the shots and keep their jobs.

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