(Reuters) -A U.S. judge ruled on Wednesday that Maine can bar religious exemptions to its requirement that healthcare workers in the state get vaccinated against COVID-19, a day after a judge ordered New York to allow such exemptions to its mandate.
U.S. District Judge Jon Levy in Bangor, Maine, said the healthcare workers who brought the case have not been prevented from staying true to their religious beliefs, although refusing the vaccine will cost them their jobs.
The workers also failed to show Maine officials were motivated by an improper animus toward religion or that the state lacked a compelling reason to impose the vaccine requirement, said Levy, who was nominated by former President Barack Obama.
“All Maine healthcare workers have the legal right to request reasonable accommodation for their sincerely held religious beliefs and forcing COVID shots without exemptions is unlawful,” said Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal advocacy group that represented the workers.
The group filed an appeal with 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and requested the ruling be put on hold during the appeal process.
COVID-19 vaccines have become highly politicized in the United States, where only 66% of Americans are vaccinated, well short of the initial goals of the Biden administration.
Maine Governor Janet Mills announced her state’s mandate on Aug. 12, and workers have until Oct. 29 to comply.
Exemptions were allowed for medical reasons. Unlike most states, Maine does not allow for religious or philosophical exemptions to vaccine requirements.
The plan was challenged by a group of healthcare workers who said they opposed COVID-19 vaccines because some vaccines were developed from cell lines of aborted fetuses. The workers also sued several healthcare companies where they work.
Maine removed religious exemptions from mandated vaccines in 2019 and voters overwhelming rejected a referendum challenging the law last year. As a result, the COVID-19 vaccine mandate is consistent with state law and does not single out religion, Levy said.
By comparison, he said New York’s mandate originally allowed religious exemptions and then removed them as the deadline neared. New York also allows religious exemptions to other mandated shots, Levy said.
At least 24 states have imposed vaccine requirements on workers, usually in healthcare.
Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Nate Raymond in BostonEditing by Noeleen Walder, Marguerita Choy and Bill Berkrot