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Student Challenges San Diego COVID-19 Vaccine Requirement Over Religious Rights

December 17th, 2021

The Trump administration announced that it updated federal guidance for public school prayer and other regulations designed to promote religious freedom.

A student claims religious discrimination over a vaccine mandate that requires qualified students to be fully inoculated against COVID-19.

A 16-year old high school student in San Diego recently initiated legal action in federal court against the San Diego Unified School District. The student asserts that a vaccine mandate requiring qualified students to be fully inoculated against COVID-19 by the end of December 2021 constitutes religious discrimination. 

San Diego’s COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate

The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education in the fall of 2021 voted in favor of mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. As a result, employees as well as eligible students age 16 and over must be fully inoculated by December 20, 2021 to attend school in person. Eligible students who are not vaccinated by the established deadlines will be required to participate in independent study programs. Some students including foster or migrant students might be conditionally enrolled for in-person learning, though.  One element of the plan also states that state law does not recognize religious or personal belief exemptions for student immunization.

The Student Challenging the Lawsuit

The student in question attends a Christian church in San Diego County and alleges that her faith acknowledges the “morally problematic” situation due to the nature of COVID-19 vaccines. The lawsuit further alleges that because COVID-19 vaccines were either manufactured or tested using material taken from stem cell lines from aborted fetuses, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine would violate the student’s constitutional rights to freedom of religion under the First Amendment. 

The specific church or denomination to which the student belongs is uncertain. All that is known is that the student as well as her family are “devout” Christians. 

The Debate Around HEK293

The claims introduced in this lawsuit are part of the ongoing debate about the application of HEK293 cells, whose origins have been connected to a fetus that was aborted several decades ago. 

Scholars have emphasized that HEK293 as well as associated cell lines do not represent the original tissues from the fetus and are instead clones. Cells from the fetus have been used to manufacture a number of common vaccines, including those for hepatitis A, chickenpox, and shingles. 

Both the Vatican as well as the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission are anti-abortion institutions, yet both have said that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine does not constitution cooperation with abortion. 

Current Status of the Vaccine Mandate Lawsuit

The student first sued to stop the policy in October. After losing at both the federal and appellate level, the student’s legal team is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and stop the vaccine requirement. An attorney representing the school district has stated “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…” Lawyers for the student, meanwhile, say it is “discriminatory to offer exceptions to the mandate for secular reasons but not for religious reasons…”

Documenting Religious Rights Cases

The basis of most religious rights in the U.S. arises from the founding of the country and the Constitution. Each week, however, countless court cases and debates examine the exact boundary of these rights. The Universal Life Church’s blog is dedicated to documenting the most noteworthy of these matters. We strive to do so in a way that objectively examines both sides of each argument.

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