A California high school student athlete and eight workers at the high-security Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico are the latest to file federal lawsuits challenging COVID-19 vaccine mandates on religious and constitutional grounds.
A 16-year-old junior at Scripps Ranch High School and her parents filed suit against San Diego Unified School District over its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy, saying the district should allow the Christian girl to claim a religious exemption because she objects to the “taint” of abortion-derived cell lines that were used to develop and produce the shots.
Identified in the suit as Jill Doe and her parents, Jane and John Doe, the plaintiffs claim the “Vaccination Roadmap” issued by the school district violates their freedom of religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The lawsuit, filed by the Thomas More Society in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, seeks a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the vaccine mandate, as well as damages and attorneys’ fees. The plaintiffs seek to remain under pseudonyms during the litigation for fear of retaliation, the lawsuit says.
In the New Mexico case, eight workers at the nuclear national-security laboratory said Los Alamos expects them to take unpaid leave or use vacation hours in order to “accommodate” their religious objections to the federal shot mandate issued Aug. 23. Raul Archuleta, Isaac Martinez, Trina Suazo-Martinez, Daniel Frank, Michelle Coriz, Adrianna Martinez, Vallerie Lambert and Sam Sprow sued Triad National Security LLC, also known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and its director, Thomas Mason. The Thomas More Society filed the suit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.
San Diego district allows some exemptions
“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 Paul M. Jonna, a partner with LiMandri & Jonna LLP and a special counsel for the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based civil-rights law firm.
“Our client’s faith prevents her from taking any of the currently available vaccinations due to their taint with aborted fetal cells,” Jonna said. “As a result, according to the district’s vaccination mandate, she must either abandon her faith or enroll in independent online study.” Refusing the shot would also mean the student could not take part in interscholastic athletics at the San Diego high school. As a “preeminent athlete,” Jill Doe “hopes to draw the attention of college recruiters and potentially earn a sports scholarship,” Jonna said.
According to pro-life organizations including the Charlotte Lozier Institute and Children of God for Life, all three of the COVID vaccines under emergency-use authorization in the United States used abortion-derived fetal cell lines at some point in development, testing or production. The cell lines include HEK-293, developed from the kidneys of a baby girl aborted in 1972; and PER.C6, developed from a retina taken from a baby aborted in 1985.
The suit names San Diego Unified School District, Board of Education President Richard Barrera, board vice-president Sharon Whitehurst-Payne; interim district superintendent Lamont Jackson and board members Michael McQuary, Kevin Beiser and Sabrina Bazzo. San Diego Unified officials did not return a message seeking comment on the lawsuit and its claims.
Suit knocks 1905 smallpox-vaccine precedent
The suit attacks a 1905 Supreme Court precedent—Jacobson v. Massachusetts—used by some courts and vaccine proponents to justify the coercive COVID-19 shot mandates. In that case, the defendant refused a smallpox vaccination in July 1902 under a mandate passed by the city of Cambridge, Mass. He was convicted for failure to comply and fined $5 (about $150 in current dollars). The court upheld the mandate as constitutional, while acknowledging that states that had no vaccine mandate were no more afflicted with smallpox than states that used vaccine mandates.
The Jacobson decision “was a jurisprudential error that spread as its own pandemic through the federal courts, and which took six emergency trips to the Supreme Court before it was effectively stamped out—including five from California and the Ninth Circuit,” the suit said. “But now, the ghost of Jacobson has raised its ugly head again.”
Recent Supreme Court rulings that sprang from the unlawful government restriction of religion during the COVID pandemic “made crystal clear” that “governments cannot justify burdens on the free exercise of religion through appeals to an ‘emergency,’ and courts can no longer rely on Jacobson as good law in the Free Exercise context,” the suit said. “But California officials have apparently not learned the lesson. Disfavored religious minorities are not second-class citizens.”
As members of a San Diego County Christian church, the plaintiffs share beliefs that it would be immoral to take the COVID-19 mRNA shots “due to their taint with fetal cells,” the suit stated. Jill Doe “is firmly pro-life and accepts her faith’s teaching that she cannot participate in the horror of abortion in any way,” the complaint said. “In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has only deepened her faith, teaching her that life is short and precious and that she must stand up every day for her faith.”
The Vaccination Roadmap released by San Diego Union School District is not “generally applicable” because it allows for medical exemptions to the shot mandate and provides conditional in-person learning without vaccination for foster youth, homeless students, migrants, members of military families and students with an Individualized Educational Program (IEP), the lawsuit said. The vaccine policy “is also not neutral because it directly references religion to identify it as an invalid basis for not being able to be vaccinated,” the suit said. Teachers are allowed to claim religious exemption to the mandate, a policy the suit claims is “at best poorly tailored and at worst, simply illogical.”
Plaintiffs argue the shot mandate should face “strict scrutiny,” a legal standard that would require the district to show it used the least-restrictive means to achieve a compelling state interest. A statewide student vaccine mandate issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom shortly after San Diego approved its vaccine policy does allow for religious exemptions from the vaccine requirements, the suit said.
The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously on Sept. 28 to implement a vaccine requirement for all students age 16 and older. Younger students will be covered under the mandate later. School board President Barrera indicated in media interviews “that no religious objection would be considered,” the suit said. The board met via teleconference, “even though there are currently no limitations on large gatherings and no safety reason to limit them,” the suit alleged. “However, this is probably explained best by the fact that approximately 1,651 parents signed up to speak in opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.”
Los Alamos workers sue over vaccine mandate
In the New Mexico case, Los Alamos National Laboratory director Mason decided those granted religious exemptions would be placed on unpaid leave or forced to use vacation days, said the lawsuit, filed Oct. 25. The policy violates the Free Exercise Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the suit alleges. Los Alamos is part of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“The Lab’s one-size-fits-all religious ‘accommodation’ is in fact no accommodation at all. On its face. it utterly fails Title VII’s requirement that the parties engage in an individualized interactive process to attempt to find a reasonable accommodation,” the suit said. “The Lab refused to engage at all, instead issuing its edict without any regard for the different duties and locations of those granted a religious exemption.”
The suit challenged the notion that workers already telecommuting should be placed on unpaid leave, claiming the religious exemption to the shots would “impose no hardship on LANL at all, let alone an undue hardship,” the complaint said. Even those working on site have been doing so safely since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, the suit indicated.
“This is discrimination, pure and simple,” said Thomas More Society Special Counsel Tyler Brooks. “Los Alamos claims to have offered exemptions for those who have sincere religious reasons for not taking a mandatory COVID vaccine, but their one-size-fits-all so-called ‘accommodation’ is flagrantly illegal. Accommodation by termination has never been a lawful option.”
The laboratory admitted in an FAQ document on Sept. 27 that it discriminates against religion, the suit said. “LANL admitted that accommodations it deems acceptable for employees granted medical exemptions would not be available to employees with a religious exemption.” The document also hinted that those placed on leave without pay would later be fired, stating: “employees granted a religious exemption who are placed on a personal leave of absence are not guaranteed a position at the end of a personal leave and there is no requirement for management to hold the job open.”
Other litigation across dozens of states
Lawsuits brought by nurses, firefighters, police officers, paramedics, military service members, college students, student-athletes, professors and others have been filed in dozens of states across the country since August.
A case that just reached the appellate level, Dr. A, et al. v. Kathy Hochul, Governor of the State of New York, et al., was heard Oct. 27 by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, based in New York City. Gov. Hochul appealed a preliminary injunction issued Oct. 12 against New York’s mandate for health care workers, in a suit brought by 17 Christian plaintiffs who sought religious exemptions.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida will hold a hearing Nov. 15 on whether to issue a preliminary injunction against President Joseph R. Biden’s vaccine mandate for military personnel, federal employees and civilian contractors. A class-action suit was filed Oct. 15 by Liberty Counsel on behalf of members of all five military branches, federal employees and contractors who sought religious exemptions to the COVID-19 shots. Plaintiffs face job termination, possible court martial and dishonorable discharge from the service if they refuse the shots.
Meanwhile, a Colorado federal judge has denied a preliminary injunction against the University of Colorado School of Medicine, which threatened to fire one of its Catholic faculty physicians and expel a Buddhist medical student for refusing to take a COVID vaccine. The Thomas More Society filed suit against the university Sept. 29, alleging “explicit religious discrimination” by the medical school and its vaccine policy. District Judge Raymond P. Moore was not persuaded and denied the motion for an injunction.
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