A devout Catholic doctor and a Buddhist first-year medical student were subjected to an “outrageous,” unconstitutional inquisition by the University of Colorado School of Medicine when they filed for exemptions to a COVID-19 shot mandate, a federal lawsuit alleges. One of the plaintiffs’ lawyers said the case is part of a “troubling trend” of illegal discrimination against people of faith nationally and added, “there’s going to be litigation for years over this topic.”
The lawsuit filed in federal court for the District of Colorado by the Thomas More Society and two local attorneys alleges “explicit religious discrimination” by the medical school that requires “immediate judicial intervention.”
“The level of inquisition and probing into the nature of these folks’ religious beliefs was outrageous for a government entity,” said Peter Breen, vice president of the Thomas More Society and the public-interest law firm’s senior counsel. “You just don’t see this anywhere. It’s not legal and you can’t do it under the Constitution. The government is not there to sit and nitpick your religious beliefs.”
The case joins plaintiffs from Roman Catholicism and Buddhism. “We thought it was interesting that we were able to unite both the Catholic faith and then a minority faith in this country, Buddhism, to show this religious discrimination really strikes across the spectrum and really hits a lot of people,” Breen said. “It isn’t just a traditional group of conservative Catholics or what have you. No, this is broad-based religious discrimination.”
Named as defendants in the lawsuit were the University of Colorado; Donald M. Elliman Jr., chancellor of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora; and Dr. Shanta Zimmer, senior associate dean of medical education at the School of Medicine. The case is Jane Doe M.D. and John Doe v. The University of Colorado, et al., being heard before U.S. District Judge Raymond P. Moore. The suit seeks a preliminary and final injunction against the religious exemption policy, and a declaration that the actions of the medical school were unconstitutional.
Catholic and Buddhist Plaintiffs
The 32-page lawsuit said Dr. Jane Doe, a pediatric physician at the School of Medicine who also practices at Children’s Hospital of Colorado, requested a religious exemption to the shot mandate on August 22, 2021. The doctor is a Catholic who founded a Physicians for Life group while in medical school. She also holds a master’s degree in bioethics. Four days later, the medical school’s “Vaccine Verify” team emailed Dr. Doe a form letter stating her request was denied because her Catholic faith is not “based on a religious belief whose teachings are opposed to all immunizations,” according to a copy of the email. Employees who work at the UC Anschutz Medical Campus who do not get the COVID shot(s) face eventual job termination — in Dr. Doe’s case worsened by a non-compete agreement that would force her to look for work far from where she now lives, the suit said.
“As a faithful Catholic, I uphold the dignity and sanctity of every human life and firmly oppose abortion and the evil involved in the use of cell lines derived from abortions,” Dr. Doe wrote in her application for exemption. “All three available emergent-use authorized vaccines in the U.S. — Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and Johnson & Johnson, used the abortion-derived cell lines (HEK293) in one or more phases of developing the SARS CoV-2 vaccine.”
The suit noted the guidance given by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in December 2020 that vaccination is not morally obligatory and thus must be voluntary. The Catholic bishops of Colorado affirmed the CDF guidance in an Aug. 6 letter, noting that if no alternatives are available, it is morally acceptable to take some of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“The Catholic bishops of Colorado have promulgated a draft letter for their pastors to send to support requests for religious exemption by Catholics in Colorado,” Breen said. “So every Catholic in Colorado has the support of her pastor and bishops in making good-faith religious objections like these. The bishops there have very much stood for, stood up for the religious objections of their faithful.”
John Doe, an incoming first-year student at the School of Medicine, said he had been assured before moving to Aurora from British Columbia that he only needed to fill out the exemption form to receive a waiver from the shot. On Aug. 13, Doe was told he would be exempt from having to get a shot, the lawsuit said. Five days later, the student was notified his exemption was withdrawn and he would have to apply under a new policy. He provided information explaining his Buddhist faith and why he opposed all vaccines based on the tenets of Buddhism.
On Aug. 24, the student response team headed by Dr. Zimmer asked Doe to provide proof that Buddhism is opposed to all immunizations. “Citations from specific documents are not sufficient,” the email read. “The University will only accept requests for religious exemption that cite to the official doctrine of an organized religion, in this case, Buddhism, as announced by the leaders of that religion.” The letter noted that Dharma Master Hsüan Hua (1918-1995), whose Buddhist teachings Doe had studied, founded a university in Ukiah, Calif., that requires COVID-19 vaccination for all students.
“The university had thus openly entered the theological business of judging the truth or falsity of its students’ religious beliefs,” the lawsuit said. Doe then sent Dr. Zimmer a supplemental letter explaining that his beliefs were particularly offended by the COVID-19 shots, because they were developed using cell cultures from aborted babies. The extra information made no difference. Dr. Zimmer wrote him on Aug. 30 that his request was denied: “The basis for your objections are all of a personal nature and not part of a comprehensive system of religious beliefs.”
“The University of Colorado medical school turned its religious process into an inquisition and rejected those whose faith didn’t meet the standards that had been preselected by the university,” Breen said in an interview with Catholic World Report. “So the university was only going to accept the faiths that had a total ban on all vaccines, but reject those groups of faith who for a variety of reasons—including abortion or other reasons—would reject these particular COVID-19 vaccines.”
Mark Couch, chief of staff and director of communications at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, offered a statement in response to the federal lawsuit: “Our vaccination policy is critical for the School of Medicine to provide a safe and healthy place for our students to learn, our patients to receive care, and our faculty and staff to work. Each year, School of Medicine faculty members provide care for more than 2 million patients and our mandatory vaccination requirement offers the best way to protect the patients in their care. We have adopted this policy in recognition of our responsibility to provide public health leadership in our state and beyond.”
Request for anonymity
The plaintiffs requested that the U.S. District Court allow the suit to proceed with them identified only by pseudonyms, out of fear of retaliation and persecution. “There is a top-down cultural, societal and legal assault currently underway against those who forego the vaccines,” the lawsuit said. “Those who are unable to receive the vaccines for sincere religious reasons are thus subject to a vicious mob whipped into a frenzy,” the suit said. It cited an example from a reader comment on an article on the COVID shots, published in Riverhead, N.Y.: “The anti-vaxxers are ignorant trash and don’t deserve to live. Gun them down while they’re all in one place and let God sort it out.”
The lawsuit says the CU Anschutz Medical Campus policy as it relates to religious exemptions violates the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the religious freedom clauses of the Constitution of the State of Colorado. As part of a stipulation agreement between the university and the plaintiffs, Dr. Doe will be on paid leave of absence while the legal case is pending. Student Doe took a leave of absence from medical school. The university refunded his tuition and fees.
The CU Anschutz Medical Campus made recent changes to its policy on religious exemptions to the shot mandate. The policy, as initially adopted June 2, 2021, said a religious exemption “may be granted based on a person’s religious belief whose teachings are opposed to immunizations.” An updated policy, effective Sept. 24, removed the phrase “whose teachings are opposed to immunizations.” The updated policy also removed language about students who wish to file for a religious exemption. It now reads, “Religious accommodations are not currently available to students or applicants.”
Breen said the new policy is not an improvement. “They essentially admitted that the original policy was no good, but now this new policy is just as bad,” Breen said. “Now they’re saying students can’t get religious exemptions at all, and so they very specifically targeted students of faith with this. So a student can get a medical exemption but not a religious exemption anymore. We’re challenging all of this, we intend to challenge all of it as we move forward.”
Breen said health care facilities around the country have shown that sincerely held religious beliefs of employees can be accommodated without an undue burden on hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other sites. The CU Anschutz Medical Campus has allowed unvaccinated staff to work around patients and staff for nearly a year, Breen said, so the sudden urgency of the shot policy makes no sense. Employees in other parts of the University of Colorado have been granted religious exemptions, he said.
“The arbitrary nature of the way these medical administrators have just decided to come after folks—students and staff—it makes no sense,” Breen said. “They have no explanation based on science to show the basis for why they’re being so extreme and unflinching in their demands for compliance.”
“The University of Colorado should just do the right thing, do what most other employers across the country are doing and accommodate sincere religious objections,” Breen said. “It’s not difficult. Other health care institutions are doing it. There’s no reason to be firing people and terminating people’s livelihoods and throwing these kids out of school merely because they have a sincere belief.”
The Chicago-based Thomas More Society has been swamped with requests for help from employees around the nation who were denied religious exemptions to shot mandates, Breen said. The society represents a group of 17 health care staff in New York who are challenging that state’s mandatory shot policy for health care workers. A U.S. district judge granted a temporary restraining order against enforcement of the policy and is expected to rule on a preliminary injunction by Oct. 12.
“We have had thousands of requests for assistance from across the country,” Breen said. “We’re finding that many employers in a variety of settings are accommodating sincere religious belief. We’re having good success with many employers. …We are still hearing a troubling many — many hundreds of requests from folks who were not accommodated by their employers. From Alaska to Rhode Island to New York, out West, we’re getting requests from everywhere for help. We don’t have enough resources to help everyone.”
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