Federal Appeals Court Upholds State Vaccine Mandate Without Religious Exemptions


In general, federal district courts have been rejecting challenges to employer vaccine mandates. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued one of the strongest decisions yet, upholding Maine’s requirement for all state healthcare workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The requirement permits only medical exemptions and was challenged by workers seeking religious exemptions.

In Does 1-6 v. Mills, the plaintiffs argued that the lack of religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate violated their religious rights under various laws, including the Free Exercise Clause, the Supremacy Clause and Title VII. The federal district court denied their request to enjoin the vaccine requirement, and they appealed the denial to the First Circuit.

No Violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The First Circuit affirmed the denial of injunction. With regard to the Free Exercise Clause, which protects religious liberty against government interference, the First Circuit noted that, “When a religiously neutral and generally applicable law incidentally burdens free exercise rights, we will sustain the law against constitutional challenge if it is rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.” Because the law does not recognize either religious or philosophical objections to the vaccine, it does not single out religion and is thus facially neutral. It is also generally applicable, in that the State need not evaluate individual requests and also does not permit other secular exemptions. The existence of the single exemption for medical reasons (required for the health of the employee) does not undermine the State’s asserted goals of (1) ensuring that healthcare workers remain healthy and able to provide the needed care to an overburdened healthcare system; (2) protecting the health of those in the state most vulnerable to the virus — including those who are vulnerable to it because they cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons; and (3) protecting the health and safety of all Mainers, patients and healthcare workers alike.

No Violation of Title VII. The First Circuit also rejected the argument that private employers violated the Supremacy Clause, which provides that federal law takes precedence over State law, by allegedly making Title VII (and its religious accommodations requirement) inapplicable in Maine. The employers, however, dispute that Title VII required them to offer the exemptions sought by the plaintiffs. The First Circuit noted that injunctive relief is an extraordinary step applicable only when inadequate damages are available; however, “When litigants seek to enjoin termination of employment, money damages ordinarily provide an appropriate remedy.” The need for injunctive relief is not established by “insufficiency of savings or difficulties in immediately obtaining other employment.” In addition, the plaintiffs had not met the administrative prerequisite for a Title VII claim of filing a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Moreover, the First Circuit found that the private employer hospitals had established an undue hardship in providing the religious exemptions requested, for generally the same reasons as the State’s goals.

Although a win for employer mandates, this ruling will undoubtedly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, so stay tuned for further developments on this issue.