By Tom Hals
(Reuters) – A U.S. judge ruled Wednesday that Maine may ban religious exemptions from its requirement that state healthcare workers get vaccinated against COVID-19, a day after a judge ordered New York to allow such exemptions from its mandate.
U.S. District Judge Jon Levy in Bangor, Maine, said healthcare workers who brought the case have not been prevented from staying true to their religious beliefs, although denying the vaccine will cost them their use.
The workers also failed to show that Maine officials were motivated by inappropriate animosity towards religion or that the state had no compelling reason to impose the vaccine requirement, said Levy, who has was appointed by former President Barack Obama.
Vaccines have become highly politicized in the United States, where only 66% of Americans are vaccinated, well below the original targets of the Biden administration.
The Maine requirement was announced by the administration of Maine Gov. Janet Mills on August 12. Exemptions have been allowed for medical reasons, but unlike most states, Maine does not allow religious or philosophical exemptions from vaccine requirements.
The plan was challenged by a group of medical professionals who said they opposed COVID-19 vaccines because some vaccines were developed from cell lines of aborted fetuses. The workers also sued several health care companies where they work.
Maine removed religious exemptions from mandatory vaccines in 2019, and voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum challenging the law last year. As a result, the mandate of the COVID-19 vaccine complies with state law and does not distinguish between religion, Levy said.
By comparison, he said the New York mandate originally allowed religious exemptions, then removed them as the deadline approached. New York also allows religious exemptions for other mandatory shooting, Levy said.
At least 24 states have imposed vaccine requirements on workers, typically in healthcare.
(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Marguerita Choy)