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Student asks U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in her lawsuit against S.D. Unified COVID vaccination mandate

The U.S. Supreme Court in July 2020
A Scripps Ranch High School student suing the San Diego Unified School District over its COVID-19 vaccination mandate asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
(Andrew Harnik / AP)

Justice Elena Kagan asks the school district to respond to the lawsuit calling for student religious exemptions.

A student who sued the San Diego Unified School District over its student COVID-19 vaccination mandate asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 10 to intervene on her behalf.

Specifically, the Scripps Ranch High School student asked the nation’s highest court to prevent the district from enforcing the vaccination requirement, based on religious grounds.

Justice Elena Kagan asked San Diego Unified to respond to the student’s request by 3 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 16.

The student’s lawsuit takes issue with the COVID vaccination mandate that the San Diego Unified board approved in late September for staff and all students 16 and older. Students must get their second dose of vaccine by Monday, Dec. 20, to comply with the mandate or they won’t be allowed to attend school in person or participate in extracurricular activities starting Monday, Jan. 24.

The district will be able to fire or otherwise discipline employees who do not comply.

The Scripps Ranch student, referred to in court documents as Jill Doe, sued the district because San Diego Unified is not allowing religious exemptions to the mandate for students.

The student argues that the district is discriminating against her based on her Christian beliefs, which she says preclude her from taking COVID vaccines because historical stem cells derived from abortions were used in testing the vaccines. COVID vaccines do not contain any aborted cells, and stem cells are frequently used in vaccine testing.

A district lawyer cautioned that Kagan’s request for a response does not automatically mean the Supreme Court is taking up the case.

“Federal court judges at the trial and appellate court levels have thoroughly reviewed and considered this case, including the persistent mischaracterization of the district’s vaccination program by the lawyers challenging it,” Mark Bresee, the attorney representing San Diego Unified in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “These jurists have applied the law to the actual facts and have correctly concluded that the program is lawful. The only new development is that plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to intervene, which changes nothing, and when receiving an emergency application the assigned Supreme Court justice invites a response from the opposing party in nearly every instance.”

San Diego Unified is offering medical exemptions to the vaccination mandate on a case-by-case basis, which the district says is in line with state rules on school vaccine requirements. The district also is allowing vaccine deferrals for some students, such as those who are homeless, in military families or in foster care. School district leaders have said they are offering those deferrals due to potential issues with immediately securing records for the students.

But district leaders have said they do not want to offer religious or personal-belief exemptions to students because families could abuse that loophole, resulting in many people not getting vaccinated.

Unlike students, San Diego Unified staff are allowed to request religious exemptions to the mandate because federal law allows for such requests, district officials have said.

Attorneys for the Scripps Ranch student argue that it’s discriminatory for the district to offer students and staff exceptions to the mandate for secular reasons — including students who are younger than 16 and don’t have to be vaccinated yet — but not for religious reasons.

“The San Diego Unified School District seems to believe that medical reasons, secular status, concerns about FDA approval, administrative convenience and accommodation of adult consciences are important enough to justify allowing unvaccinated individuals to come to school,” Jeffrey Trissell, an attorney representing the Scripps Ranch student, said in a statement. “Yet a student with sincere religious beliefs is treated harshly and banned from in-person class and athletics. That discriminatory treatment triggers strict scrutiny under the free-exercise clause.”

School district officials have pointed out that while vaccine deferrals are allowed for some students, those students will have to get vaccinated eventually. They also noted that California allows for medical exemptions from the state’s 10 standard required school vaccines but does not allow personal-belief exemptions from them.

California has announced a COVID vaccination mandate for K-12 students and staff, but the state is not enforcing it yet. As of now, the state will allow students personal-belief and religious exemptions to that mandate.

The Scripps Ranch student sued the district in October. First, a federal district court sided with San Diego Unified. Then the student took the case to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which temporarily blocked the student vaccination mandate as long as the district continued to offer deferrals to pregnant students.

The district quickly removed its deferral for pregnant students, and on Dec. 4, the 9th Circuit lifted its block on the mandate.


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