A federal judge hearing a lawsuit against the state’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for healthcare workers has ruled in favor of a motion filed by two media companies challenging the plaintiffs’ anonymity.
U.S. District Court Chief Judge Jon D. Levy on Tuesday issued a 13-page ruling that requires previously anonymous plaintiffs to file an amended complaint — containing their names — by June 7. Governor Janet Mills and the State of Maine are named as defendants in the case.
“After carefully weighing the relevant factors, I conclude that the plaintiffs have failed in their heavy burden of demonstrating the need to overcome the strong presumption favoring public access to civil proceedings, as required for them to continue under a pseudonym,” Levy wrote in her decision.
The motion to uncover the identity of the plaintiffs was filed by the two companies that own the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, the Morning Sentinel and the Lewiston Sun Journal.
The newspapers, mentioned in the court documents as intervenors, argued that the plaintiffs should not continue to be allowed to proceed under a pseudonym because “the plaintiff’s alleged fear of harm no longer outweighs the public interest in open judicial proceedings”.
The plaintiffs are Maine healthcare workers who, in August 2021, challenged a change in state law that requires employees of Maine’s designated healthcare facilities to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The plaintiffs’ reason for refusing the vaccine “is rooted in their religious 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 start of the trial, he allowed the healthcare workers to proceed anonymously after arguing that their reasonable apprehension of harm outweighed the public interest in open litigation. Levy said he reserved the power to reconsider.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Levy said “the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs and their resulting medical decisions not to be vaccinated against COVID-19, whether considered separately or together, are not material in matters of privacy so important that they warrant pseudonymous proceedings”.
“In the final analysis, however, there is a near total absence of evidence that their expressed fears are objectively reasonable,” Levy wrote. “In this case, it has not been demonstrated that the privacy interests of the plaintiffs outweigh the public interest associated with the presumption of openness that applies to civil proceedings.”
Liberty Counsel, the conservative group representing the plaintiffs, argued that Maine must offer a religious exemption for vaccines because it offers a medical exemption. The rule treats people who seek religious exemption less favorably, supports the freedom advocate, and therefore violates their right to freely practice their religion.
It was unclear Tuesday night whether the plaintiffs planned to appeal Levy’s decision.
Federal judges at every level — the United States District Court, the 1st United States Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, and then the United States Supreme Court — refused to block the entry into force. warrant while the courts considered the merits of the case. Liberty Counsel, a conservative group that represents plaintiffs, then filed a motion for writ of certiorari, seeking a full briefing and oral argument before the Supreme Court. The motion was denied in February.
The mandate took effect in October and major health care providers reported at the time that most workers had decided to get vaccinated and keep their jobs. The case is different from the legal battle over the federal vaccination mandate for private company employees.
Maine has not allowed hospital and nursing home workers to opt out of injections for religious reasons and all nine plaintiffs, according to Levy, must now identify themselves demanded that option.
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