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Federal Court Pauses California School District’s Vaccine Mandate

Judges say district cannot only permit secular exemptions

Protesters outside of the San Diego Unified School District office. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)
• November 30, 2021 1:15 pm

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A federal court temporarily blocked a California school district's vaccine mandate the day before it was set to take effect after determining the school unfairly denied religious exemptions.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday granted an emergency injunction against the San Diego Unified School District's vaccination mandate for students 16 and older. The judges ruled that the district's mandate must remain paused as long as it allows medical exemptions for pregnant students.

The court will soon issue a full ruling on the San Diego district's mandate. In a partial dissent, Judge Sandra Segal Ikuta wrote that the district should not be allowed to deny religious exemptions while allowing any type of secular exemption.

"[A]ny unvaccinated student attending in-person classes poses the same risk to the school district's interest in ensuring a safe school environment," Segal Ikuta wrote.

The Supreme Court in recent months has rejected a series of individual appeals to COVID-19 vaccine mandates. On Monday, the justices dismissed an appeal from Massachusetts health care workers who said the state's vaccine mandate violates their religious beliefs. The Court has yet to consider a case on public school COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

The San Diego Unified School District board voted to implement the mandate in September. Unvaccinated students would have needed to get their first dose on Nov. 29 in order to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 20, the deadline set by the mandate. Any student not vaccinated by that date would have had to attend school remotely.

The Ninth Circuit issued the injunction in response to a lawsuit filed by an anonymous 16-year-old student. The student says the mandate violates her Christian beliefs, which prohibit her from taking vaccines developed using aborted fetal tissue.

Pfizer and Moderna used stem cell lines from aborted fetal tissue to test their vaccines. Johnson & Johnson used aborted fetal tissue to develop and produce its vaccine.

Paul Jonna, an attorney for the student, echoed the Ninth Circuit's ruling.

"[The government] treated comparable, secular activity better than religious exercise," Jonna told the Washington Free Beacon. "So if they're going to offer secular exemptions to mandates they're going to have to offer religious exemptions too."

The mandate also applies to school staff, who have access to religious exemptions under federal law. The San Diego Unified School District did not respond to a request for comment.

California governor Gavin Newsom (D.) announced in October that he will issue a vaccine mandate for all students once the FDA fully approves COVID vaccines for young children. San Diego Unified is one of several California districts to implement individual mandates in the interim.

A total of 621 Americans under the age of 18 have died from COVID-19, according to the CDC.