Court temporarily halts San Diego schools’ COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Protesters rally against San Diego Unified's student vaccination mandate.
At San Diego Unified School District headquarters on Sept. 28, a large crowd rallies to object to the school district’s plan to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for staff and students 16 and older.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday temporarily blocked San Diego Unified’s student COVID-19 vaccination mandate from going into effect — one day before the school district’s deadline for students to get their first dose.

The court sided with a 16-year-old junior at Scripps Ranch High School who had sued last month, saying San Diego Unified’s vaccination mandate violated her religious beliefs.

The San Diego Unified school board voted in late September to require that staff and students 16 and older be fully vaccinated against COVID by Dec. 20, meaning they had to have their first dose by Monday, in order to continue to attend school in person. Those who don’t comply would have to attend school remotely.


The student, identified as Jill Doe in the complaint, said her Christian beliefs prevent her from taking the COVID vaccine because the vaccines were tested using historical stem cell lines derived from abortions during the 1970s and 80s.

COVID vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. Stem cell lines are regularly used in the testing and development of vaccines and common medications such as Tylenol, Sudafed and Pepto Bismol.

The 9th Circuit’s decision on Sunday came 11 days after a federal judge in San Diego denied the student’s request for a restraining order against the district’s mandate.

As expected, the state’s two largest school systems face litigation over requiring COVID vaccinations as a condition for attending in-person classes.

The 9th Circuit granted the student plaintiff’s request for an emergency restraining order against the district’s mandate, pending appeal.

The court blocked the mandate only as long as San Diego Unified continues to allow pregnant students to postpone getting the vaccine. If San Diego Unified stops offering deferrals to pregnant students, the court’s block of the mandate will end.

Attorneys for the plaintiff argued that the mandate discriminates against students like her who object to it on religious grounds, because the district is granting vaccination deferrals and exemptions to certain students for some non-religious reasons, but not for religious reasons.

For example, students are allowed to seek medical exemptions, and certain students don’t have to be vaccinated right away, such as foster youth, homeless students, migrant students, students from military families and pregnant students.

Paul Jonna, an attorney representing the Scripps Ranch student, said in a statement that allowing non-religious exemptions but outlawing religious ones is discriminatory.

“SDUSD cannot treat students better if they seek exemption from vaccination for secular as opposed to religious reasons,” he said. “The COVID regime of secular favorites but religious outcasts must end.”

School board President Richard Barrera has said the district is not offering religious or personal belief exemptions because the district does not want families to abuse such exemptions as a loophole to the mandate. However, San Diego Unified is granting religious exemptions to its staff because it is required to do so by federal law.

Students who don’t comply would have to transfer by January to an online, independent study program that has struggled under increased enrollment.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he will allow personal belief exemptions for the statewide school COVID vaccine mandate, but some state legislators have said they want to restrict such exemptions. Such exemptions already are outlawed for the 10 other state-required childhood vaccinations.

The appeals court’s decision provides temporary relief to unvaccinated students who would have been forced to forgo in-person learning starting in January.

Under San Diego Unified’s mandate, students 16 and older who are not fully vaccinated by Dec. 20 would lose their chance to attend school in person and participate in extracurricular activities. They would be forced to learn remotely, through a program such as the district’s virtual school or independent study.

As of the end of October, three-quarters of San Diego Unified students 16 and older had received at least one dose of the vaccine, district officials said in mid-November. There are roughly 14,000 students 16 and older in San Diego Unified.

About 82% of the district’s 14,000 staff had at least one dose of the vaccine by mid-November.

San Diego Unified officials could not immediately be reached for comment.