A federal judge hearing a lawsuit against the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for health care workers has ruled in favor of a motion filed by two media companies challenging the nine plaintiffs’ anonymity.
Chief US District Court Judge Jon D. Levy issued a 13-page ruling Tuesday that requires the previously anonymous plaintiffs to file an amended complaint – containing their names – by June 7. Gov. Janet Mills and the state of Maine are named as defendants in the case.
“Having carefully weighed the relevant factors, I conclude that the Plaintiffs have not met their high burden of showing a need to overcome the strong presumption favoring public access to civil proceedings, as required for them to continue pseudonymously,” Levy wrote in his decision.
The motion to unseal the plaintiff’s identities was filed by the two companies that own the Portland Press Herald, Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel and Lewiston Sun Journal.
The newspapers, referred to in court documents as intervenors, argued that the plaintiffs should not continue to be permitted to proceed pseudonymously because of the plaintiff’s “alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public’s interest in open legal proceedings.”
The plaintiffs are Maine healthcare workers who in August 2021 challenged a change in state law that requires employees of designated Maine healthcare facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The plaintiffs’ reason for refusing the vaccine “is rooted in their religious-based objection to abortion and their assertion that fetal stem cells were used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines,” the court documents state.
Levy explained that at the outset of the lawsuit he allowed the healthcare workers to proceed anonymously after they argued that their reasonable fear of harm outweighed the public’s interest in open litigation. Levy said he reserved the authority to reconsider.
In Tuesday’s decision, Levy stated that the “plaintiffs’ religious beliefs and their resulting medical decisions not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, whether considered separately or together, do not present privacy interests so substantial as to support pseudonymous proceedings.”
“In the final analysis, however, there is a near total absence of proof that their expressed fears are objectively reasonable,” Levy wrote. “On this record, the plaintiffs privacy interests have not been shown to outweigh the public interest associated with the presumption of openness that applies to civil proceedings.”
Liberty Counsel, the conservative group that represents the plaintiffs, has argued that Maine needs to offer a religious exemption for vaccines because it offers a medical exemption. The rule treats people who seek a religious exemption less favorably, Liberty Counsel contends, and therefore violates their right to freely practice their religion.
It wasn’t clear whether the plaintiffs planned to appeal Levy’s ruling.
“Since your paper is party to the dispute and represented by council, Liberty Counsel can only address the newspaper’s attorney regarding this matter,” Holly Meade, a spokesperson for Liberty Counsel, said in an emailed response to a request for an interview late Tuesday night .
Federal judges at every level – the US District Court, the 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston and then the US Supreme Court – refused to block the mandate from taking effect while the courts considered the merits of the lawsuit. Liberty Counsel, a conservative group that represents the plaintiffs, then filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking for full briefing and oral argument before the Supreme Court. The petition was denied in February.
The mandate took effect in October, and major health care providers reported at the time that most workers decided to get their shots and keep their jobs. The case is different from the legal battle over the federal vaccine mandate for employees at private companies.
Maine did not allow hospital and nursing home workers to forgo shots for religious reasons and the nine plaintiffs Levy now says must identify themselves demanded that option.
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