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San Diego student fighting vaccine mandate appeals judge’s denial of religious exemption

Opponents of the student vaccine mandate pray outside San Diego Unified School District offices
Opponents of the student vaccine mandate pray during a rally outside San Diego Unified School District offices on Sept. 28.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A San Diego high school student who says taking the COVID-19 vaccine would go against her religious beliefs will appeal a judge’s ruling.

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Lawyers representing a high school student who sued the San Diego Unified School District over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate have filed an appeal after a federal judge denied the teen’s request for an exemption.

The 16-year-old junior at Scripps Ranch High, identified as Jill Doe in court papers, and her family contend in a lawsuit that the girl’s Christian beliefs prohibit her from taking the vaccine because it was tested on stem cell lines derived from aborted fetal cells collected decades ago. Fetal cell lines are regularly used in the research and development of vaccines and common medications, including Tylenol, Pepto Bismol and Sudafed.

The lawsuit claimed that the school district’s policy, which requires staff and students age 16 and older to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 20, would violate the girl’s right to freely exercise her faith.

“Our clients are opposed to the COVID-19 vaccines because they were all either made or tested using aborted fetal cells,” said Paul Jonna, a Rancho Santa Fe attorney working on the case, in a statement. “Our clients are firmly pro-life and refuse to benefit from vaccines that were made in this way, which they view as immoral — as do many other people of faith.”

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A federal judge on Nov. 18 denied the girl’s request for a temporary restraining order against the school’s mandate. On Tuesday, her lawyers announced they had appealed the ruling and were asking the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals for an emergency injunction by Monday, the day unvaccinated students would need to begin the inoculation process in order to meet the district’s deadline.

Students who do not get vaccinated will have to enroll in distance learning and cannot participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, a restriction that could mean missing out on chances for college scholarships, the teen’s lawyers say.

Lawyers also noted that, while San Diego Unified is not offering religious exemptions to students, they are available to teachers. The district also is allowing unvaccinated students with medical exemptions to attend school in person and participate in athletics.

District officials were not available for comment Wednesday, but San Diego Unified Board Chair Richard Barrera, who was named in the teen’s lawsuit, has said the district is not offering personal belief exemptions for students because families may end up abusing that loophole, resulting in low COVID-19 vaccination rates.


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