REGION — The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked San Diego Unified School District’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate on the grounds of a student’s religious beliefs just one day before students were required to receive their first dose.
A panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sunday that the school district’s mandate will be blocked as long as the district offers vaccination deferrals for pregnant students, who were allowed to postpone receiving the vaccine, as reported by City News Service. The court’s injunction will be terminated if the deferral option for pregnant students is removed.
The ruling, which only impacts the San Diego Unified School District, stems from a lawsuit filed in October by the family of a 16-year-old Scripps Ranch High School student and her parents, who were identified as John, Jane and Jill Doe in the complaint.
Paul Jonna, an attorney representing the family, said the girl’s pro-life religious beliefs prohibit her from taking the vaccine since they are connected to abortion. All three vaccines either were developed by or tested on electively aborted fetal cells, a practice used in vaccine manufacturing since the 1960s, according to the Science journal.
Doe is a devout Christian who does not believe in the use of fetal cells for medical testing or use in any vaccine, Jonna said, who also noted the school district has a religious exemption for staff, but not students.
Jonna said while the ruling is favorable, the fight is still not over, and the district has exposed itself to further civil action for potential violations of students’ First Amendment rights.
“San Diego Unified School District withdrew the pregnancy deferral as an option,” Jonna said. “At one point in time, they thought that it made sense to give pregnant students a deferral. Now, in response to this court order, they are taking that away from students so they can try and have this injunction dissolved. They took away a right they previously thought was necessary.”
The district’s plan requires that all students over age 16 receive their second dose no later than Dec. 20, per wire reports. Unvaccinated students 16 years or older will be required to take part in remote learning via independent study. The district’s plan allows for medical exemptions to the mandate, but not religious or personal belief exemptions.
The district changed its policy on Nov. 29 to remove a deferral during pregnancy, which Jonna said should concern all parents and students. The court can lift the injunction and appears to give some leeway to do so in its ruling. However, Jonna said if the appeals court does lift its order, an immediate appeal with be submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mark Bresee, attorney representing the school district, told The Coast News the school district expects the court’s restraining order to be short-lived with the removal of the pregnancy deferral, and “the primary takeaway is that the court appears poised to uphold the district’s vaccination mandate in the face of numerous lines of attack.”
Bresee noted the district modeled its policy on existing state law, including a narrow and objective process for obtaining a medical exemption, which has been upheld in federal court. Additionally, the school district’s mandate was made after full FDA approval of vaccines and is consistent with the district’s focus on its students’ health and safety, Bresee said.
“Regarding the pregnancy deferral issue the court addressed in its brief order, the district has already taken action to remove the option to request a deferral during pregnancy, and is in the process of notifying the court, so we expect the injunction to be terminated soon,” Bresee said. “No pregnancy deferral requests had been received, so the action did not impact any students, and at any rate, the plaintiff is not seeking a deferral but is seeking to be exempted from the mandate.”
Jonna said one of the judges’ opinions stated his client’s position of religious exemption requires strict scrutiny from the court, the most demanding test under constitutional law.
“I think they should be doing right now … is let’s add religious exemptions,” Jonna said. “Let’s keep all the other protections, but let’s protect our religious students, too. Instead, they are taking away a protection they thought was necessary and continue to alienate people with religious beliefs.”