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Renewed lawsuit challenges San Diego Unified vaccine mandate

San Diego Unified is facing a renewed challenge to its vaccination mandate that begins in the summer session. KPBS Health Reporter Matt Hoffman spoke with a law professor about the suit.

Four students are now part of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the San Diego Unified School District's vaccination mandate, arguing it violates their religious beliefs.

Starting this summer, San Diego Unified students 16 and over will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The district is mandating it where there is full FDA authorization, which right now includes ages 16 and over. Officials are taking medical exemptions, but not those for religious or personal beliefs.

Originally the suit covered one Scripps Ranch High School student, and an emergency relief request made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but was denied due to there being no official mandate policy at the time.

California Western School of Law professor Joanna Sax specializes in health law and reviewed the federal complaint.

The students argue the requirement violates their first amendment religious rights, "due to their association with abortion." A few things stand out to Sax.

"They never disclose which religion is their objection — they say they are Christians — they identify as Christians, but that’s very broad," she said.

Sax points to the Catholic Church where the Pope has said they are in favor of vaccines.

"I know that other Christian faiths aren’t necessarily as centralized as the Catholic Church, but I did find it interesting that they don't identify which Christian sect that they belong to that supports a religious exemption," she said.

She also found the complaint inconsistent in some places. It said one of the students already had COVID-19 and therefore is immune to catching it or spreading it, but then another teen is later mentioned who has been infected twice.

"One of their arguments is that these teenagers have all gotten COVID-19, so they have natural immunity and they can’t get it and they can’t spread it to other people, but that’s not true because one of them has had it multiple times," she said.

Sax does not see the lawsuit prevailing, especially since California does not allow for religious or personal exemptions when it comes to vaccinating kids in schools — something she said has been challenged numerous times.

"And all of those challenges lost," she said.

Attorneys representing the families said the district cannot hide behind procedural delays and they are confident the requirement will be gone ahead of the fall term.

"We’ve amended our complaint, added new plaintiffs, and we are confident that we will ultimately obtain permanent injunctive relief — for our clients and all students with sincere religious objections," said Paul Jonna, partner at LiMandri & Jonna LLP.

San Diego Unified is sticking by their vaccination mandate, which kicks in during the upcoming summer session.

"The district continues to put the health and safety of students as a top priority, and vaccines remain a key component of that commitment," said SDUSD spokesperson Maureen Magee. "The district is aware of the amendment to the lawsuit, which does not impact the viability of the case."

The state of California is also looking to implement its own COVID-19 vaccine requirement. The earliest that could happen is the 2023 school year, pending full FDA approval for those under 16 years old.