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Religious organization sues Mills, Shah and others over health care vaccine mandate

Liberty Counsel, a national religious organization, filed suit Wednesday against Maine Gov. Janet Mills, members of administration, and Maine health care providers

MAINE, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills and several of Maine's largest health care organizations are facing a lawsuit from the Liberty Counsel over the state's vaccine mandate for health care workers.

The national religious organization said Wednesday it is representing more than 2,000 health care workers statewide in fighting the requirement that they get the COVID-19 vaccine or lose their jobs.

According to court documents filed this week, the civil suit names Gov. Mills, Dept. of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew, and Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah. It also names MaineHealth, Genesis Healthcare of Maine, Northern Light Health Foundation, and MaineGeneral Health. 

The legal action comes as the deadline to get shots is approaching in order to adhere to the governor's mandate goes into effect Oct. 1.

Under the governor's mandate, health care workers are required to get the shot with the only medical exemptions, not religious ones. The lawsuit alleges that is "unlawful."

“There can be no dispute that Maine is required to abide by federal law and provide protections to employees who have sincerely held religious objections to the COVID 19 shots," Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said in a statement Wednesday.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey spoke out against the lawsuit Wednesday evening saying getting vaccinated is "simple and commonsense."

“The requirement in Maine that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19 is based on a determination by public health experts that it is necessary to limit the spread of COVID-19 in health care facilities and to protect Maine’s health care system," Frey said in a statement to NEWS CENTER Maine. "We will vigorously defend the requirement against this lawsuit and we are confident that it will be upheld." 

Frey added that the state has required health care workers to be vaccinated against other diseases for years without challenge. He also noted recent instances he believes have set precedent. 

"Federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have consistently upheld mandatory vaccination requirements. Most recently, Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused to enjoin Indiana University’s requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19. Lower federal courts had previously upheld the constitutionality of the requirement," Frey said.

Frey added more Thursday.

"For many years the state has required health care workers to be vaccinated against various communicable diseases and, to our knowledge, that requirement has never been challenged.  The state has now simply added an additional disease – COVID-19 – to the list of ones for which health care workers must be vaccinated. Federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have consistently upheld mandatory vaccination requirements. Most recently, Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused to enjoin Indiana University’s requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19.  Lower federal courts had previously upheld the constitutionality of the requirement.

More than 80 percent of eligible Mainers have received their first dose of vaccine, but we can do better to protect the lives and livelihoods of Mainers. The vast majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are among unvaccinated individuals, and as of this afternoon, the Maine CDC has noted that there are only 39 available ICU beds in Maine, down from 52 yesterday. The FDA has fully approved the Pfizer vaccine. If you have not done so already, please get vaccinated.  It is a simple and commonsense thing you can do to protect not only yourself, but also your loved ones, co-workers, and the community,” said Frey.

Despite a surge in cases tied to the Delta variant across the state, anti-vaccine activists' have only strengthened their opposition.

The Liberty Counsel filed a motion for a temporary restraining order. During a hearing Thursday in U.S. District Court, the case manager for the plaintiffs argued the merits of the request.  

Amy Spencer, representing unnamed plaintiffs said, "(t)here are a number of employers that regardless of whether that September 17th might be a deadline the governor recognizes and regardless that October 1st might be the hard deadline for 'full vaccination.' These plaintiffs are suffering irreparable harm by the choice alone or want, and two it’s not theoretical that these people are facing harm because the plaintiffs themselves, as we speak, have been terminated. "Two of them and others are threatened with termination prior to tomorrow’s deadline and September 17th’s deadline and certainly before the October 1st deadline."

Judge Jon Levy denied the order request saying, "I’m not satisfied that you’ve established compliance with the (notification) requirements...or that there is good cause for (prior notice) not to be required in advance. Therefore, I’m going to issue an order later today denying your request for a temporary restraining order."

Suzanne Spruce, representing Northern Light said Thursday afternoon, "Northern Light Health has not been served a copy of the Complaint, but we intend to be present for a conference the Court scheduled for the end of this month."

Joy McKenna of Maine General said, "We have not been served the complaint yet. We will participate as appropriate once we do."

John Porter of Maine Health sent NEWS CENTER Maine a lengthy response.

MaineHealth has no immediate comment on the specifics of the Liberty Counsel lawsuit as it is a pending legal matter. 

“As we’ve said publicly before, MaineHealth supports the decision by the State of Maine to require health care workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19. Our vision of ‘Working together so our communities are the healthiest in America’ means that MaineHealth is committed to doing everything possible to safeguard our care team, patients and the communities we serve. 

"We continue to urge our colleagues to get the facts and learn firsthand that the COVID-19 vaccines are proven to be both safe and highly effective. As such, vaccination is an indispensable part of any strategy to mitigate the impact of this devastating pandemic, and requiring our care team to be inoculated is essential to our shared vision. 

“With nearly 90 percent of our care team of 23,000 having been documented as being vaccinated, we continue to make progress every day toward our goal of having all care team members protected from the worst impacts of COVID-19. 

“We recognize that some of our colleagues are struggling with the vaccination requirement, and we are committed to doing all we can to provide them with the information needed to make an informed choice. We stand by the decision to require vaccination because it is the right thing to do for our care team, our patients and the communities we serve.” 

Judge Levy did say he would ensure the case was expedited so that the decision would be made by both the September 17th or October 1st vaccine deadlines, so employees could be in compliance with the mandates. 

Additionally, Judge Levy wouldn't nail down a specific date for the case, but indicated September 3rd or September 9th as "possible dates."

The organization also represented Calvary Baptist Church in Orrington in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop Gov. Mills from enforcing or reinstating any future pandemic-related restrictions. The court declined to hear the case.