WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Friday to block Maine's requirement for health care workers to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, even though it doesn't contain a religious exemption.
Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented, saying they would have blocked the mandate. Two of the court's other conservatives, Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh, said they agreed the court should not take the case, because it came on an emergency appeal without benefit of a full briefing.
The state requirement was challenged by health care workers who opposed the Covid-19 vaccination mandate on religious grounds. State officials began enforcing the new rule on Friday.
Maine's order applies to health workers in hospitals, nursing homes and doctor's offices. State officials said most of those covered by the order have complied.
Maine allowed religious exemptions in the past for health care workers, daycare employees, school children and college students. But the state eliminated all non-medical vaccination exemptions in 2019. It said falling inoculation rates were causing communicable diseases to spread more rapidly.
A group of health care workers sued when the Covid-19 vaccine was required, saying they objected because the vaccine was developed with the aid of "fetal cell lines that originated in elective abortions." The rule forced them to decide "what is more important to them -- their deeply held religious beliefs or their ability to work anywhere in their state so that they can feed their families."
None of the Covid-19 vaccines contain fetal cells, according to published data about their composition. During the testing stages for their vaccines, Moderna and Pfizer used cell lines replicated from fetal cells taken 50 years ago. Johnson &Johnson used a different cell line in some of the production phases of its vaccine.
Lawyers for the state told the court that Maine was not engaging in religious discrimination, because the law applies to all healthcare workers and is not intended to restrict any particular religious practice. "The object of the recent amendment to the rule is to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among healthcare workers in high-risk settings, protect patients and individuals from disease and death, and protect Maine's healthcare system," the attorneys wrote.
"Most healthcare facility outbreaks in Maine are the result of healthcare workers bringing Covid-19 into the facility," the state told the Supreme Court.
Writing for the three dissenters, Gorsuch said the state was not treating all healthcare workers equally, because those with a medical objection could refuse to take the vaccine, while those with religious objections cannot.
"Health care 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," he said.