San Diego student sues, objecting to school vaccine mandate for religious reasons

Protesters against vaccination mandates pray in a huddle outside the San Diego Unified School District office
Protesters against vaccination mandates pray outside the San Diego Unified School District office on Sept. 28.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Scripps Ranch High School student has sued San Diego Unified School District in federal court, arguing that the student vaccination mandate constitutes religious discrimination.

The student, a 16-year-old junior at Scripps Ranch High School, said her religious beliefs prohibit her from the COVID-19 vaccination.

The complaint asserts that, because COVID-19 vaccines were tested on stem cell lines originally derived from aborted fetuses, accepting the vaccine runs counter to the student’s Christian beliefs. The lawsuit says the district is violating her 1st Amendment right to freely exercise her faith.


Identified as Jill Doe in the complaint, the student is represented by the Thomas More Society, a nonprofit law firm that handles religious freedom challenges.

“Jill Doe’s faith prevents her from taking any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations due to their taint with aborted fetal cells,” the complaint stated.

On Sept. 28, the San Diego Unified School Board unanimously approved a policy requiring staff and students 16 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 20 in order to continue attending school in person. That means students would need their first dose by Nov. 29.

The mandate would take effect for grades 7 through 12 the semester after the FDA’s full approval of the vaccine for children 12 and older.

Oct. 1, 2021

Those who don’t get vaccinated will be required to complete remote learning, according to the district’s plan. The district said that state law governing existing immunizations does not allow for students’ personal belief exemptions.

Paul Jonna, a Rancho Santa Fe-based attorney working on the case, said he hopes to receive an emergency injunction against the rule before the Nov. 29 deadline for students to receive the first dose.

If the lawsuit prevails, it would allow Doe to remain in classes and could prompt the district to revise its policies on religious exemptions for COVID-19 vaccinations, he said.


If the student has to revert to remote learning, she would miss in-person instruction and athletic activities and her family would have to seek other educational options for her, he said.

Under San Diego Unified’s policy, teachers and other staff members can request religious or personal belief exemptions, but students who don’t wish to get vaccinated can be exempted only for medical reasons, the lawsuit noted.

However, certain groups — including students who are foster youth, homeless, migrant, from a military family or on Individualized Education Programs — are not required to get vaccinated on the same timeline.

The lawsuit argues that if those students are eligible for vaccination exemptions or postponements, the district also must extend those allowances to students who object on religious grounds.

“If allowing a medical exemption is OK and doesn’t pose a threat to students, then the city or school district has to allow religious exemptions,” Jonna said.

On Monday, some parents kept their children home from school to protest the pending statewide student vaccination mandate.

Oct. 18, 2021

The student and other vaccination opponents say they object to the drugs because of their connection to decades-old fetal stem cell lines.

The vaccines don’t contain any fetal stem cells; but stem cells cultivated from samples originally obtained in elective abortions in the 1960s and 1970s were used in “proof of concept” research early in the research process for the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines.


The cells used today were cultured and reproduced from the original line but are generations removed from the samples obtained after elective abortions.

Many other medications have used the same ubiquitous stem cell lines for product testing purposes and include such common drugs as albuterol, aspirin, ibuprofen, Tylenol, Pepto Bismol and Tums.

Jonna said he believes many of those medications were developed before stem cell lines were in use, although the products were subsequently tested on fetal stem cells. He said the student and her family draw an ethical distinction between those processes.

“What our clients have an objection to is developing a vaccine using either actual fetal cells in the development of vaccine or testing them on fetal cell lines,” he said.

The Vatican and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the United States Southern Baptist Convention have issued statements advising congregants that use of the vaccines does not constitute cooperation with the abortions those stem cells originally derived from.

Jonna would not identify what church the student belongs to but said that church shares her position on COVID-19 vaccines.


Students in extracurricular activities face an Oct. 31 deadline for getting both vaccine doses.

Oct. 26, 2021

The lawsuit also asserts that the student should not be required to get vaccinated since a COVID-19 antibody test showed that she had been previously exposed to the virus and acquired some natural immunity.

Earlier this month Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a statewide mandate affecting public and private school students. Under his order, COVID-19 vaccinations would become mandatory for students in the semester following the vaccine’s full federal approval for each age group, starting with age 12 and up.

That mandate adds COVID-19 vaccinations to the list of other vaccinations required to attend school, such as those for measles, mumps and rubella.

There is no personal belief exemption for those shots. However, since Newsom’s mandate was an order, not legislation, he said he was allowing exemptions for students’ “personal beliefs” about the COVID-19 shot.

San Diego Unified Board Chair Richard Barrera and other district administrators could not be reached for comment Monday. Barrera has said recently that the district is not offering personal belief exemptions for students for the COVID-19 shot because families may end up abusing that loophole, resulting in low vaccination rates.

Jonna said that if his client prevails, then San Diego Unified could be required to revise its list of vaccination exemptions.

“If the court ruled in our favor and found that this is unconstitutional, then I believe San Diego Unified School District would have to modify its policy and provide a personal belief exemption to everybody,” he said.


This is not the only legal challenge to the vaccination mandate in San Diego. Earlier this month Let Them Choose, a project of the anti-mask group Let Them Breathe, filed suit against San Diego Unified in San Diego Superior Court, arguing that the district’s vaccination mandate hurts students because it forces them to learn from home in independent study if they don’t get vaccinated.