One of the many fun events of the past few years has been the Supreme Court deciding it is going to blow apart and reconstruct First Amendment free exercise doctrine in the middle of a pandemic, often on the shadow docket, with little warning and less argument, invariably in the direction of hamstringing the public authorities' efforts to impose basic common-sense limitations to stop the spread of a highly-infectious, contagious disease. We should all take a moment to pour one out for the courageous American people, who have largely been steadfast and resilient in the face of the federal judiciary's determined efforts to kill us all.
The latest salvo on this front was the 6-3 vote by the Supreme Court to deny emergency relief to health care workers who wanted a religious exemption from Maine's vaccine requirement. Maine allows vaccine exemptions solely for medical reasons; it does not permit religious (or, I believe, any other) bases for exemption. This vote does not necessarily mean that the case will come out the same way if it ever reaches the Court via normal avenues; Justice Barrett, joined by Justice Kavanaugh, concurred but suggested that part of their issue was that the case was inappropriate for resolution on the shadow docket. Glad they finally got the memo!
Justice Gorsuch wrote for three dissenters to stake out what would have been until, well, last week, a truly staggering position: that Maine's choice to exempt from a vaccine mandate only those for whom a vaccine is physically dangerous fails rational basis review, which is such an extreme departure from existing constitutional law doctrine I'm almost in awe of its lèse-majesté. Others can pick at other aspects of the opinion, but one element I wanted to flag was Justice Gorsuch's claim that Maine has a system of "individualized exemptions" in place for its vaccine mandate which it is unreasonably failing to extend to religious objectors.
The "individualized exemption" rhetoric picks up from the Court's halting attempt to harmonize its new free exercise jurisprudence with what had been the prevailing standard in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, which held that neutral and generally applicable laws needn't offer religious exemptions even if they happen to impinge upon the religious precepts of certain individuals. Smith distinguished some older cases, notably Sherbert v. Verner, on the grounds that in the latter there was a system allowing for individualized review and assessment of each applicant's claim. In Sherbert, which involved claims for unemployment benefits, the state individually checked to see whether each applicant had demonstrated "good cause" for declining any work offered to them; the case there involved a circumstance where the administrative agency declined to accept that refusing to work on the Saturday Sabbath constituted "good cause". As Smith observed, most laws do not offer that sort of case-by-case, highly-tailored individualized review, and so the Sherbert rule is difficult to reasonably extend to other cases.
Fast forward thirty years, and we have a Court that seems far more inclined to grant religious exemptions as a matter of constitutional entitlement, but has not (as yet) been willing to overturn Smith. So it relies on the "individualized exemption" angle to say that it's not actually making a change. This gives us Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, ruling against a Philadelphia policy which declined to give a religious accommodation to a Catholic organization that wanted to discriminate against gay couples notwithstanding that its anti-discrimination policy allowed for exemptions at the sole discretion of the relevant administrator for any reason whatsoever. Though Philadelphia had never actually granted an exemption, the Court interpreted this provision as essentially having Philadelphia look at each application for an exemption and decide, based on individualized assessment of the particular case, whether to grant one or not. This was akin to Sherbert rather than Smith -- a system of individualized review -- and if one is going to offer that sort of review than religious exemptions have to be permitted as well. Perhaps for that reason, Fulton was a unanimous decision -- it really could fit within the pre-existing doctrine, albeit only because Philadelphia had a crafted a broad and purely discretionary exemption system allowing for individualized assessment of every applicant.
Which brings us back to the vaccine mandate case. Justice Gorsuch, in his dissent, says that the Maine rule is like the Philadelphia rule -- it allows for "individualized exemption." What he specifically says is that "The State’s vaccine mandate is not absolute; individualized exemptions are available but only if they invoke certain preferred (nonreligious) justifications" -- namely, the health-based justification.
Yet Justice Gorsuch seems to be making a conflation here with huge ramifications -- between "exemptions" and "individualized exemptions". Yes, Maine's law has an exemption from its vaccine mandate for persons for whom the vaccine would not be healthful; this is eminently sensible if Maine's ambition is to promote public health. But these exemptions are not individualized in the way that was present in Sherbert or Fulton -- Maine does not make a free-standing commitment to assess every applicant "as an individual" and determine, based on the totality of the circumstances, whether an exemption is appropriate or not. It has a specific exemption for a particular class of persons -- those for whom the vaccine would be physically dangerous. Admittedly, Maine presumably has to do some individualized review to determine whether a person applying for an exemption under this demarcated policy qualifies for the exemption. But that is still not "individualized" review in the Sherbert/Fulton sense, unless every "exemption" in a law necessarily is an "individualized exemption".
Which actually does seem to be Justice Gorsuch's position: all exemptions are "individualized exemptions" -- the word "individualized" is superfluous. His proof that the vaccine mandate has "individualized exemptions" is that it is "not absolute", suggesting that any exception ipso facto qualifies as an individualized exemption which must therefore allow for a religious exemption as well.
This is staggering. One would struggle, I imagine, to think of a law that doesn't have some "exemptions" in it -- pretty much any law of substance has some "provided that such-and-such does not qualify" proviso in it somewhere. Our laws prohibiting stabbings exempt surgeons; our laws prohibiting possession of drugs exempt police officers seizing drugs; our laws prohibiting homicide exempt executioners of the death penalty. Are these all now "individualized exemptions", compelling religious adherents to get a similar exemption as well? In our soon-to-be-post-Roe world, most states which ban abortion probably still will have some "life of the mother" exception; does offering this exemption mean that any person for whom abortion is religiously mandatory in other scenarios must be permitted to have one?* I can't wait for the first Jewish plaintiff to sue on that theory; I can wait for her to inevitably lose because there is no question that the rule being expressed here is not a check liberal religious observers will be entitled to cash as against conservative rules.
At some level, this is all an academic exercise -- the reason we're focusing on the existence or not of "individualized exemptions" is not because Justice Gorsuch has any particular attachment to that as the standard, it's because this is the rhetoric one can find in Smith and so this is the best way to achieve the outcomes Justice Gorsuch wants in a world where there are not yet enough votes to overturn Smith. Nonetheless, the implications of Justice Gorsuch's position really is that any law which has any exemption for any reason must have a religious exemption too -- a position which seems perilously close to covering "all laws". That's a recipe for religious anarchy. I won't say "and that's the point", because again, we all knew who is going to be allowed to ride that train and who won't be. The likely upshot is far more likely to be the typical authoritarian-conservative structure: a favored class for whom the laws protect but do not bind, and a disfavored class for whom the laws bind but do not protect.
* It is amusing to me just how well Justice Gorsuch's logic for why a health exemption to a vaccine mandate necessarily compels a religious exemption maps onto why a health/life exemption to an abortion ban necessarily compels a religious exemption there too. Justice Gorsuch's position is that we are per se forbidden from ever declaring a "religious" need as lesser than any secular need, including health and safety (this has been referred to as promoting a wrongful hierarchy privileging "life-sustaining" over "spirit-sustaining" needs). The only basis we have for declining a religious exemption is if the religious action uniquely threatens the state's interest in promulgating the general law in a way that the secular exemption doesn't.
In the vaccine case, Gorsuch's argument goes, unvaccinated persons may be dangerous in a health care setting, but they're equally dangerous regardless of the reason they're unvaccinated -- it's not as if a virus is less transmittable if it's carried by someone who's unvaccinated because of health reasons compared to religious reasons. But so too in the abortion case -- the state's interest in protecting fetal life is equally implicated regardless of whether the reason the fetus is killed is because its necessary to protect the mother's life or because it's necessary to protect the mother's soul. Either way, the fetus is equally dead, and so once the state allows the, ahem, "individualized exemption" permitting abortion in cases where it is necessary to save a mother's life, it must allow them in any cases where a patient sincerely believes them to be religiously mandatory.