San Diego Unified vaccine mandate temporarily blocked by Appellate Court over religious exemption

Over Scripps Ranch student's religious exemption
SDUSD vaccine mandate stalled.png
Posted at 5:10 PM, Nov 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-29 20:33:57-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Eligible students in the San Diego Unified School District will not have to get their COVID-19 vaccine to attend in-person classes... for now. Late Sunday night, a judge temporarily blocked the District's vaccine mandate.

Attorney Paul Jonna is part of the Thomas More Society, a conservative Catholic law firm.

"She's a devout Christian. She's very pro-life," Jonna said of his client.

He represents the family of a 16-year-old Scripps Ranch High School student, claiming her religious beliefs prohibit her from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

"They don't want to take any vaccine that was either made or tested using aborted fetal cell lines," Jonna explained.

The COVID-19 vaccines available now were created after companies tested cell lines grown from aborted fetuses from the 1970s and '80s. Tylenol, Benadryl, and Claritin used similar techniques. Current fetal cell lines are lab-grown and do not contain any tissue from a fetus.

The district mandate allows for medical exemptions, like pregnancy, allowing students to remain on campus for school and extracurriculars. But the district does not allow religious exemptions.

Students who do not comply must enroll in independent study programs.

"They are allowing all these secular exemptions," Jonna said. "They have to also respect people's first amendment free exercise rights and treat religious activity just as good."

The Appellate court's Sunday night decision means Jonna's client can remain on campus and play sports for now, and hopefully get a college scholarship.

Though the Catholic faith teaches pro-life, the Vatican said a year ago that it is "morally acceptable to receive the COVID-19 vaccines… if there is a grave danger."

San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy echoed the sentiment in a message to local priests this August, saying:

"Receiving the COVID vaccine is perfectly consistent with the Catholic faith, and indeed laudatory in the light of the common good in this time of pandemic... I ask that you… caringly decline such requests from your parishioners to sign… declarations concerning the actions of specific individuals rejecting vaccine mandates on religious grounds."

Jonna said in the end, morality is a personal belief.

"What your church leaders, what your church hierarchy says is not really relevant," Jonna said. "The school district cannot require your priest or your bishop or anyone else to sign off on it. It's a matter of personal faith."

In response, Mark Bresee, the attorney representing the San Diego Unified School District, sent ABC 10News this statement:

We expect the court's brief order issued last night will be short-lived, and the primary take-away is that the court appears poised to uphold the District's vaccination mandate in the face of numerous lines of attack.

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. 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.

The District is pleased that the majority signaled that its full opinion will confirm that plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits once the court's concerns regarding a pregnancy deferral option are addressed. The District modeled its vaccine mandate on existing state law, including the narrow, objective process for seeking and obtaining a medical exemption when vaccination would pose a risk to the health and safety of the individual student. The decision to mandate vaccination only after full FDA approval is also consistent with the District's focus on the health and safety of individual students. The body of state law used as a model, which contains a medical exemption but no religious or personal beliefs exemption, has already been upheld in federal court. Whitlow v. Cal. Dep't of Educ., 203 F.Supp.3d 1079 (S.D. Cal. 2016). More recently the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to enjoin an employee vaccine mandate with a much broader medical exemption and no religious exemption. Does 1-3 v. Mills, 2021 WL 5027177 (Oct. 29, 2021). The District's position is that its carefully and narrowly crafted student vaccine mandate is constitutional based on current Supreme Court precedent.
Mark Bresee