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San Diego School District Sued Over Not Having a Religious COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate Exemption

Religious mandate suit marks second lawsuit against SDUSD this month over system-wide mandate

By Evan Symon, October 25, 2021 4:05 pm

The San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) was sued over the weekend by a Scripps Ranch High School student athlete and her family for religious discrimination over the district’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Last month, the SDUSD approved COVID-19 vaccination mandates following mandates by other large school districts in the state, including the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). According to San Diego’s mandate, all employees of the SDUSD, as well as all students ages 16 and up, are to be fully vaccinated by December 20th. Other students, specifically groups ages 12 and up and ages 5 and up, are to be vaccinated at a later date pending FDA approval of vaccines for younger people, according to a new mandate by Gov. Gavin Newsom. While exemptions were made for medical reasons, SDUSD bucked the trend of allowing religious exemptions.

Earlier this month, the group “Let Them Choose” sued the SDUSD, arguing that the mandate would hurt students who will have to be excluded due to their vaccination status. While the lawsuit was over the mandate, they did not focus their argument on the lack of a religious exemption.

With no lawsuit challenging the missing exemption, the path was clear for a Scripps Ranch High School family, known as the “Doe family” in court documents, to sue the district. According to the Doe V. San Diego Unified School District lawsuit, filed by the Thomas More Society, a 16-year-old named Jill Doe said that her religious beliefs prevent her from receiving the vaccine. In particular, she states that her opposition to abortion means that she can’t take the vaccine, as all three approved for emergency use vaccines use materials taken from stem cell lines in aborted fetuses. Despite health officials claiming that no fetal cells were used in the making of the vaccine, and that only older fetal cell lines from decades ago were used during research and development, the Doe family remained adamant about their stance and filed the lawsuit.

“Jill Doe must either abandon her faith or enroll in independent, online study at SDUSD,” noted the suit.

The religious mandate exemption

Lawyers for the Doe family also made the lawsuit more about the religious exemption itself, bringing up Supreme Court lawsuits in the last few years that showed that an emergency order doesn’t justify burdens on the freedom of religion and showing an executive fiat by Governor Gavin Newsom giving exemptions for both medical reasons and personal beliefs in the California state vaccine mandate.

“The San Diego Unified School District vaccine mandate attempts to nullify protections for sincere religious beliefs, while allowing medical exemptions and refusing to enforce the mandate as to certain preferred categories of students” said LiMandri & Jonna LLP lawyer Paul Jonna, who is representing the Doe’s, in a weekend press release.

“Our client’s faith prevents her from taking any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations due to their taint with aborted fetal cells. As a result, according to the district’s vaccination mandate, she must either abandon her faith or enroll in independent, online study. She is a preeminent athlete, looking forward to this winter’s season because she hopes to draw the attention of college recruiters and potentially earn a sports scholarship. However, the San Diego Unified School District’s discriminatory vaccination mandate requires that she either abandon her faith or abandon extracurricular sports at Scripps Ranch High School – dooming any chances at a sports scholarship.”

Adding to their argument was Charles LiMandri, another lawyer at the firm.

“The San Diego Unified School District has no right to impose a COVID-19 vaccine mandate without offering students an opportunity to request a religious exemption,” explained LiMandri. “SDUSD is fully aware that many people have sincere religious objections to vaccines that were tested, developed, or produced with cell lines derived from aborted children.”

“The Supreme Court made crystal clear in its six emergency COVID-19 orders issued late last year and early this year that governments cannot justify burdens on the free exercise of religion through appeals to an ‘emergency. But California officials have apparently not learned the lesson. Disfavored religious minorities are not second-class citizens.”

SDUSD school officials did not give any official statement as of Monday. However, many parents went on record, having a mixed reaction to the second lawsuit.

“There’s many for the suit and many against it,” noted Gail, a parent of two SDUSD students who helps organize volunteer movements at several schools. “Some get the religious angle, some don’t care either way, and some think that those that don’t get the vaccine are being selfish and putting everyone in danger.”

“But most people are undecided. They want people to be safe, but they also understand religious differences and beliefs. I mean, we wouldn’t force Catholics to break a Lenten fast, or have Orthodox Jewish kids to eat shellfish, or have Jehovah’s Witnesses get blood transfusions. But, again, we also want this pandemic to be over and vaccinations seem to be the best way. You can see why this is such a controversial thing.”

The suit is expected to be heard in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California soon.

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