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18 plaintiffs sue University of Colorado over vaccine mandates

Expanded federal lawsuit alleges ‘explicit religious discrimination’.

The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora is home to the School of Medicine, the University of Colorado Hospital and a number of health-sciences programs. Eighteen plaintiffs sued the university and its Anschutz Medical Campus for alleged religious discrimination in the denial of exemptions to mandatory COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo: Anschutz Medical Campus / YouTube)

The University of Colorado School of Medicine and the affiliated Anschutz Medical Campus engaged in “explicit religious discrimination” by denying COVID vaccine exemptions to 18 students, staff and faculty who filed objections to the vaccines’ use of abortion-derived cell lines in research and development, an expanded federal lawsuit alleges. The university’s vaccine policies “flagrantly violate well-established constitutional law,” the suit claims.

The lawsuit expands on litigation originally filed Sept. 29 on behalf of a Catholic faculty physician and a Buddhist first-year medical student. The amended suit adds sixteen plaintiffs — faculty, staff and students — who object to being forced to take a vaccine that relied on abortion-derived cell lines in research, development, testing or production. All 18 plaintiffs say their requests for religious exemptions to the vaccine were denied by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo., home to the School of Medicine and other health-sciences programs.

“This is a simple issue,” said Peter Breen, vice president and senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm that filed the suits. “The university has clearly violated the rights of its employees and students by agreeing to accommodations for those with health-based objections to the COVID vaccine but refusing to accommodate those with religious objections. The university and its administrators have shown a persistent attitude of religious bigotry, in their policies, in their emails denigrating and denying the sincerity of our clients’ varied beliefs, and in their filings in this lawsuit.”

Named in the amended suit are the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado; University of Colorado President Todd Saliman; Donald Elliman, chancellor of the Anschutz Medical Campus; various administrators in the schools of medicine and dental medicine; and John and Jane Does 1-9, unnamed members of the “Vaccine Verify” team that processed requests for exemptions to the shot mandate. The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction against the mandate and a jury trial in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. Most of the defendants are being sued both in their official and personal capacities, which allows plaintiffs to seek actual and punitive damages in court, Breen said.

“No government has the right to define a person’s deeply and sincerely held religious beliefs for them, nor does it have the authority to deem them valid or invalid,” Breen said in a statement. “The university’s foray into theology has gone even further, with its administrators probing and debating the religious beliefs of its staff and students, rendering value judgments on believers in an inquisition that violates the First Amendment and basic decency.”

The suit challenges two vaccine policies, one that took effect Sept. 1 and another put in force Sept. 24. The initial policy 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 reads, “Religious accommodations are not currently available to students or applicants.”

Students and staff are allowed medical exemptions under both policies. “Such medical exemptees are allowed to work and study with minimal restrictions, whether with and around patients, other staff and students, or members of the public,” the suit says. “But those with sincere religious objections are to be fired and expelled, and at least entirely forbidden from in-person contact with anyone affiliated with the Anschutz campus.”

Mark Couch, chief of staff and director of communications at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, offered a statement in response to the expanded suit: “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.”

Jane Doe 11 was granted an exemption at her work site, the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo, but since she is an employee of the Anschutz Medical Campus, she was told she must get a COVID-19 vaccine or she will be fired. Jane Doe 8, a dual-degree student studying at the university’s Denver and Anschutz campuses, was allowed an exemption in Denver but not at Anschutz. She was forced to withdraw from her master’s level classes.

Jane Doe 3, a Catholic physician with faculty appointments at Anschutz and the nearby Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center, was exempted from the shots at the VA, but because Anschutz requires the shots, she was put on unpaid administrative leave for refusing the shot. She will lose both of her faculty appointments by mid-November under the vaccine policy, according to the suit. John Doe 2 is a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force whose medical education is being paid by the military. His promised promotion to captain upon graduation is at risk if he is forced to withdraw due to the vaccine policy, the suit said. 

Other plaintiffs include information technology staff, a Catholic pediatrician, an anesthesiologist fired in September under the vaccine mandate, and a fourth-year dental student placed on involuntary medical leave because her doctor advised against the vaccine. Some of the plaintiffs have temporarily been allowed to work remotely. A police communications supervisor was allowed to continue work on campus because he is considered an “essential worker,” but he was docked 10 percent of his pay “solely because he has asserted a religious objection to the COVID vaccination requirement,” the suit said.

The Colorado litigation is among a growing number of federal suits across the country that challenge COVID vaccine mandates that have either denied religious exemptions or refused to offer them at all, even when allowing for medical exemptions. It has thrust into the spotlight the role that abortion-derived stem cell lines played in the development, testing and production of COVID shots and other vaccines. Two cells lines developed from aborted children—HEK293 and PER.C6—were used in some capacity for all of the vaccines available in the United States under emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

An emergency vaccine policy issued by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Nov. 5 requires companies with 100 or more employees to either require the COVID vaccine or force employees to undergo weekly COVID testing and wear face coverings on the job. More than half the U.S. states—including three led by Democrat governors—sued the Biden administration over the OSHA rule, contending it is unconstitutional. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued a stay of the OSHA rule on Nov. 6, saying it raises “grave statutory and constitutional issues.” The stay was ordered based on a petition for review filed by the states of Texas, Louisiana, Utah, South Carolina and Mississippi, along with employers and religious groups.

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About Joseph M. Hanneman 101 Articles
Joseph M. Hanneman writes from Madison, Wisconsin.

1 Comment

  1. I am glad to be retired and no longer at the mercy of government mandates for me to ignore my religious beliefs. I could never write another pro-life letter to the editor, post or protest abortion, if I allowed the immoral vaccines into my body. I realize that there are other vaccines (Shingles) and products (Tylenol) to name only two that have been developed using the fetal cell lines from decades-old abortions, but the Covid-19 vaccines are the ones that have made the public aware of these immoral research and development methods, so people cannot be held responsible for using products or vaccines that they didn’t know were immorally researched, developed, produced or tested by these means. Now that we know, we have moral decisions to make, and our consciences are at work. Forcing anyone to violate their religious beliefs violates the First Amendment of our Constitution. The government simply doesn’t have that power. I pray that these plaintiffs will prevail.

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