Judge tosses challenge to health care worker vaccine mandate

Governor Dan McKee gets a COVID booster shot September 30, 2021 at the Pilgrim Senior Center in Warwick. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday denied a request by four people who had challenged the constitutionality of Rhode Island’s health care worker coronavirus vaccine mandate because it does not allow for religious exemptions and sought a temporary restraining order to block it.

“The court finds that the plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of these claims,” U.S. District Court Judge Mary S. McElroy wrote in her decision.

“As to the constitutional claims, courts have held for over a century that mandatory vaccination laws are a valid exercise of a state’s police powers, and such laws have withstood constitutional challenges,” she wrote.

McElroy also noted that the plaintiffs filed the suit just eight days before the mandate’s deadline, but more than five weeks after the governor announced it.

The legal challenge to the mandate that takes effect Friday was filed by four people who work in the health care field, including a doctor, a nurse, a hospital clerk who attends medical school, and a health unit coordinator at a hospital.

The plaintiffs were not named because they “wish to keep their identities anonymous to avoid harassment,” according to the suit.

The state’s mandate applies to workers in state-run and state-licensed health care facilities.

Workers who don’t comply could lose their licenses to work in the state, and thus their jobs.

The suit did not mention which religion the plaintiffs follow, but said they are refusing shots based on the use of “aborted fetal cell lines” in the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines.

A message seeking comment was left with the plaintiffs’ attorney.

Gov. Daniel McKee at a news conference Thursday called the mandate “crucial” for protecting the state from the coronavirus, and said since it was announced, about 5,000 health care workers in the state have been vaccinated.

The state’s two biggest hospital operators — Lifespan and Care New England — have about a 95% vaccine compliance rate, he said.