San Diego student asks Supreme Court to intervene in suit against district’s vaccine mandate

Members of the media set up outside the Supreme Court
A Scripps Ranch family suing San Diego Unified over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene. Justice Elena Kagan has asked the district to respond to the lawsuit.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

A student who sued the San Diego Unified School District over its student COVID-19 vaccine mandate asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday to intervene on her behalf.

The Scripps Ranch High School student asked the court to prevent San Diego Unified from enforcing the vaccine requirement based on religious grounds.

Justice Elena Kagan asked San Diego Unified to respond to the student’s request by Thursday at 3 p.m.


The student’s lawsuit takes issue with a vaccination mandate that the San Diego school board approved in late September for staff members and all students 16 or older. Students have to get their second vaccine dose by Dec. 20 to comply with the mandate, otherwise they won’t be allowed to attend school in person or to participate in extracurricular activities starting Jan. 24.

The Scripps Ranch student, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, sued the district because it is not allowing religious exemptions to the mandate for students.

The student argues that the district is discriminating against her based on her Christian beliefs, which she says preclude her from taking COVID-19 vaccines because historical stem cell lines that were initially derived decades ago from aborted fetuses were used in testing the vaccines. COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted cells, and stem cells are frequently used in vaccine testing.

The Vatican declares it morally acceptable for Roman Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed from research using fetal tissue from abortions.

Dec. 22, 2020

A district lawyer cautioned that Kagan’s request for a response does not automatically mean the Supreme Court is taking up the case.

“Federal court judges at the trial and appellate court levels have thoroughly reviewed and considered this case, including the persistent mischaracterization of the district’s vaccination program by the lawyers challenging it,” Mark Bresee, the attorney representing San Diego Unified in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “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, and when receiving an emergency application the assigned Supreme Court Justice invites a response from the opposing party in nearly every instance.”

San Diego Unified is offering medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate on a case-by-case basis, which the district says is in line with state rules on school vaccine requirements. The district also is allowing vaccine deferrals for some students, such as homeless students, students in military families and foster students; school district leaders have said they are offering these deferrals due to potential issues with immediately securing records for these students.


But district leaders have said they do not want to offer religious or personal belief exemptions to students because families could abuse that loophole, resulting in many people not getting vaccinated.

Unlike students, San Diego Unified staff members are allowed to request religious exemptions to the mandate because federal law allows for such requests, district officials have said.

Attorneys for the Scripps Ranch student argue that it’s discriminatory for the school district to offer students and staff exceptions to the mandate for secular reasons — including students who are younger than 16 and don’t have to be vaccinated yet — but not for religious reasons.

“The San Diego Unified School District seems to believe that medical reasons, secular status, concerns about FDA approval, administrative convenience, and accommodation of adult consciences are important enough to justify allowing unvaccinated individuals to come to school,” Jeffrey Trissell, an attorney representing the Scripps Ranch student, said in a statement. “Yet a student with sincere religious beliefs is treated harshly and banned from in-person class and athletics. That discriminatory treatment triggers strict scrutiny under the free exercise clause.”

School district officials have pointed out that although vaccine deferrals are allowed for some students, those students will have to get vaccinated eventually. They also noted that California allows for medical exemptions from the state’s 10 standard required school vaccines, but it does not allow for personal-belief exemptions for those vaccines.

California has announced a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for K-12 students and staff, but the state is not enforcing it yet. As of now, the state will allow students to request personal belief and religious exemptions to that mandate.


Officials want to avoid having to bar more than 30,000 students from campus who are now too late to meet the Jan. 10 inoculation deadline.

Dec. 10, 2021

The Scripps Ranch student sued the district in October. First, a federal district court sided with San Diego Unified. Then the student took the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which temporarily blocked San Diego Unified’s student vaccine mandate as long as the district continued to offer deferrals to pregnant students.

The school district quickly removed its deferral for pregnant students, and on Dec. 4, the 9th Circuit lifted its block on the mandate.

San Diego Unified staff members and students 16 or older are required to receive their second vaccine dose by Dec. 20 in order to meet the district’s requirement of peak immunity by Jan. 4. Their deadline to have received their first dose was Nov. 29.

San Diego Unified does not know yet how many students and staff are behind on complying with the mandate. Its most recent vaccination data are from Nov. 15.

As of that date, 78% of its students 16 and older had received at least one dose and 83% of staff members had received one dose, according to the district.

Students who do not comply with the mandate will be barred from in-person learning and school extracurricular activities, and they will be forced to learn via independent study or online school. The district will be able to fire or otherwise discipline employees who do not comply.