Lawyer: Injunction against San Diego Unified's vaccine mandate will be 'short-lived'
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Just as a new variant emerges globally here, the ninth circuit court of appeals temporarily halt San Diego unified vaccine mandate today would have been the necessary deadline for students 16 and up to receive their first dose of the vaccine to be compliant for in-person learning during the spring semester. But one student said getting the vaccine would violate her Christian beliefs here to talk more about that is KPBS education reporter mg Perez mg. Welcome. Hello, you've been covering this and following this case. So first fill us in on what exactly the district's mandate required.
Speaker 2: (00:37)
The mandate required that all eligible students ages 16 and up would have to be fully vaccinated by the spring semester in order to attend in-person classes, because the only, uh, vaccine that's available to them requires two doses. They would have had to have had that first dose by today, the second dose, right before winter break on December 20th. And that, that way they would be fulfilling the mandate.
Speaker 1: (01:05)
And how did this lawsuit come about? Well,
Speaker 2: (01:08)
There is a student, uh, that decided she would not take the vaccine for religious reasons. Uh, she did not give a denomination, but she claims to be a Christian. She attends church in the local area. And again, according to her, it's against her religious beliefs to, um, to inject this vaccine. So her family got an attorney and they filed for an injunction, which would in effect stop the mandate from proceeding. And that's exactly what has happened temporarily for the moment.
Speaker 1: (01:41)
And why did the ninth circuit say it put the district's mandate on hold?
Speaker 2: (01:45)
Because there was enough evidence that this plaintiff could be harmed. Uh, had she taken the vaccine, uh, against her better judgment and also her religious beliefs. So they believed that for the moment it is worth stopping while they investigate more. And, uh, while we wait for another, uh, decision from them
Speaker 1: (02:05)
And why does the district say it does not offer religious exemptions to students?
Speaker 2: (02:10)
Quite frankly, the district does not want that to be abused by families who would just simply say, you know, it goes against my religion. There is a process that somebody would have to go through a teacher or staff member, but again, that does not apply to students.
Speaker 1: (02:28)
And part of the problem is that they allow other types of exemptions.
Speaker 2: (02:32)
Yes, there are medical exemptions. There are exemptions for, uh, students who have been identified as homeless. There are also exemptions for students who qualify as being students with special needs. So the argument from the attorney side is why, why do you allow that? But you will not allow this for my client
Speaker 1: (02:52)
And mg to talk more about why this student feels the vaccine, um, is in conflict with her religious
Speaker 2: (03:00)
Beliefs. She does believe that this vaccine was put together with the use of fetus cells from aborted fetuses, back in the seventies and eighties. And that's the reason she says it goes against her Christian beliefs,
Speaker 1: (03:17)
But does the vaccine contain aborted fetal cells?
Speaker 2: (03:21)
It does not. Um, there is some history of fetal cell, uh, use in the research, but it does not include them.
Speaker 1: (03:30)
And you spoke to the attorneys who represent the Scripps ranch, high school student. What did they say about the mandate being put on hold?
Speaker 2: (03:38)
The attorney I spoke to was very clear and he does believe that this is a case that is discriminatory, uh, to people who are of faith. And here's what he said,
Speaker 3: (03:49)
Different regulations are not neutral and generally applicable. And they therefore trigger strict scrutiny, which is the most demanding test and constitutional law when they treat any comparable, secular activity better than religious exercise. And basically, um, it's, self-evident here that they're treating a whole host of secular exemptions better than religious exemptions.
Speaker 1: (04:12)
All right. So what has the district said about the mandate being put on hold?
Speaker 2: (04:17)
Usually the district has no comment when it has to do with pending legal action, but I did reach out to, uh, the president of the, uh, San Diego unified board of education, Richard Berrera. And he said the mandate goes into effect when the second semester starts in late January students, 16 and older, who have not had two vaccines in time to build full immunity. That takes about two weeks and who have not received a medical exemption will not be allowed to attend school in person. And we expect the full night circuit to rule soon. So basically he is saying, uh, they're not budging. The mandate officially goes into effect, uh, in late January. But of course, in order to meet that mandate shots will have had to have been taken by this week and by December.
Speaker 1: (05:06)
So obviously this isn't the end of the case. What's next?
Speaker 2: (05:10)
Hurry up and wait, Jane, I asked the attorney today. I said, when do you expect a full ruling from the appeals court? And he said, it could be this week. It could be sometime in December, it's really up to them to decide. So we went,
Speaker 1: (05:25)
Um, I've been speaking with KPBS education, reporter mg Perez mg. Thank you so much for joining us.
Speaker 2: (05:32)
A federal appeals court has granted a request from a 16-year-old Scripps Ranch High School student and her parents who sued to block the San Diego Unified School District's COVID-19 vaccine mandate, one day before students were required to get their first dose.
But the school district attorney said the injunction could be lifted as soon as Tuesday.
The suit filed in San Diego federal court on behalf of the family — identified as John, Jane and Jill Doe in the complaint — stated that the high school junior's religious beliefs — specifically her opposition to abortion — prohibit her from getting the vaccine.
Paul Jonna, an attorney representing the family, has said his clients are opposed to taking the vaccines "because they were all either made or tested using aborted fetal cells."
Jonna said, "Our clients are firmly pro-life and refuse to benefit from vaccines that were made in this way, which they view as immoral — as do many other people of faith."
The district's plan requires that all students over age 16 receive their second dose no later than Dec. 20. According to Doe's filings, that means students' first dose must be received by Monday in order to be considered fully vaccinated by Dec. 20.
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.
While the family's request for a temporary restraining order was denied by U.S. District Judge Cathy Bencivengo earlier this month, a panel of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Sunday that SDUSD's mandate will be blocked as long as the district offers vaccination deferrals for pregnant students, who were allowed to postpone receiving the vaccine.
The court's injunction will be terminated if the deferral option for pregnant students is removed, which an attorney representing the school district said is already underway.
Mark R. Bresee, an attorney handling the case for SDUSD, said the district has already taken action to remove the pregnancy deferral option and thus expects the injunction granted by the court "to be terminated soon."
Bresee also said the district has not received any pregnancy deferral requests, "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."
In a statement, plaintiffs' attorney Paul Jonna called the ruling "a significant victory" and said the district should revise its policy to grant religious exemptions.
"Otherwise, we are confident that we will fully vindicate our clients' rights either in the Ninth Circuit or in the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary," Jonna said.
But Bresee said that with the pregnancy deferral option addressed, the court "signaled that its full opinion will confirm that plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits..."
The attorney said SDUSD's mandate was modeled after existing state law and backed by case law.
"The district's position is that its carefully- and narrowly-crafted student vaccine mandate is constitutional based on current Supreme Court precedent," Bresee said.