In this July 13, 2021, file photo, Gov. Janet Mills speaks to reporters in her cabinet room in Augusta. Credit: David Sharp / AP

A national Christian organization has filed a lawsuit against Gov. Janet Mills and several of the state’s largest health care organizations over Maine’s requirement that health care workers get the COVID-19 vaccine or risk losing their jobs

Liberty Counsel, which has also represented an Orrington church suing over state COVID-19 restrictions, said it was representing more than 2,000 health care workers across the state in the lawsuit. While employees can get out of the vaccine requirement with a medical exemption, there is no religious exemption in the policy. Liberty Counsel argues the lack of such an exemption violates federal law.

The lawsuit against the policy — which is set to take effect Oct. 1 — marks the latest flashpoint in heated debates over vaccine and mask mandates that are playing out in a number of forums as Maine and the nation see a spike in COVID-19 cases from the highly contagious delta variant.

“This edict would force numerous doctors, nurses, medical professionals, and other health care workers to choose between the exercise of their sincerely held religious beliefs and their employment,” Liberty Counsel said in a statement.

The Maine attorney general’s office will “vigorously defend” Mills’ policy against the lawsuit and is confident the vaccine requirement will be upheld by the courts, Attorney General Aaron Frey said. 

Maine had long required health care workers to get inoculated against spreadable diseases without legal challenge, and the addition of the COVID-19 vaccine is no different, Frey said. Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, had already upheld COVID-19 vaccination requirements from legal challenge, he said.

“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. 

Government defendants in the lawsuit are Mills and officials at the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Liberty Counsel. Some of Maine’s hospital systems are also defendants, including Northern Light Health, MaineGeneral Health and MaineHealth. Genesis HealthCare, which runs a number of nursing homes in the state, is also a defendant.

While lawsuits against vaccine requirements have grown in recent months, courts have often sided against plaintiffs seeking to stop such policies. Earlier this month, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused to block a plan by Indiana University to require that students and employees get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The religious liberty organization argues that health care workers are protected from receiving vaccinations they oppose for religious reasons under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The policy also violates the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, Liberty Counsel said.

One of the employees Liberty Counsel is suing on behalf of is an employee of Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, who is referred to as Jane Doe 1 by Liberty Counsel. The employee asked MaineHealth if she could receive a religious exemption for the vaccine on Aug. 17. MaineHealth replied that state policy required that it deny her request.