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Federal appeals court lifts injunction on San Diego schools’ COVID vaccine mandate

Teachers, parents and students stage a sit-out to protest vaccine mandates in San Diego.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals voted to lift a block that it had placed on the San Diego Unified School District’s student COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
(Jarrod Valliere / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The temporary injunction was lifted after the district stopped offering deferrals to pregnant students.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals voted on Saturday to lift a temporary injunction that it had placed on the San Diego Unified School District’s student COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The rare weekend decision, reached by a 2-1 vote, lifts the injunction the court had placed on the mandate about a week ago. Judges had said the injunction would continue as long as the district continued to allow vaccine deferrals for pregnant students. But now that San Diego Unified removed that condition, the block has been removed too.

“We take seriously our responsibility to create a safe environment for our students and staff,” said San Diego Unified Board President Richard Barrera in a statement. “This latest decision recognizes that we have both the responsibility to protect students and the authority to do so by implementing a vaccine mandate, which is really our best hope as a country to get this deadly disease under control.”

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The decision is the latest development in a legal battle surrounding a mandate that would restrict in-person learning and on-campus activities among SDUSD students 16 and older to those who are fully vaccinated. The policy would take effect Jan. 24, and students and staff must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 20.

More than seven out of every 10 San Diego Unified students 16 or older are already fully vaccinated.

The district insists it’s a necessary step to ensure students and staff are protected against the coronavirus, but critics say it’s an infringement on personal liberty. A 16-year-old junior at Scripps Ranch High School sued the district in October, alleging that the mandate violated her religious beliefs. Namely, she stated that, as a Christian, she is unwilling to take vaccines developed using aborted fetal cells.

COVID-19 vaccines do not contain material from aborted fetal cells or tissue. But some of the cell lines used to test vaccines in the lab include cells derived from aborted fetuses. That has been a thorny issue for some, though the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention have come out in favor of the vaccines, citing the shots’ protective benefits against severe COVID-19.

The plaintiff objected to the district’s vaccine mandate allowing for secular, medical exemptions but not religious ones. And the appeals court voted to temporarily halt the mandate on Nov. 28 as long as the district was allowing pregnant students to defer vaccination.

The district announced the next day that it had removed the pregnancy deferral. That leaves only a limited number of exemptions, such as doctor-certified medical conditions that would make vaccination unsafe. There’s still no exemption for personal beliefs, but the court ruled that there wasn’t clear evidence the mandate had been created to target anyone’s beliefs.

“Appellants have not shown a likelihood of establishing that the mandate was implemented with the aim of suppressing religious belief, rather than protecting the health and safety of students, staff, and the community,” said the court in its majority opinion.

The news comes just days after another attempt to stop a COVID-19 vaccine mandate by the county’s largest school district also failed. On Thursday, a San Diego Superior Court judge denied a request by a group based in North County to immediately halt the vaccine mandate.

District’s mandate already was blocked by judges in another lawsuit, but that block may be lifted soon


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