Judge Sides With Unvaccinated Maricopa Community College Students


Maricopa community colleges cannot, at this time, enforce their vaccine requirements for two nursing students who sued the district, a federal judge has ruled.

Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno claimed that the community college district violated their free exercise of religion by failing to help them complete their clinical placements required for graduation. Students refused to be vaccinated for religious reasons, and their rotations were scheduled at partner sites requiring vaccination.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan has granted their preliminary injunction request, but the case will continue.

For now, the district is to accommodate the students so they can complete the clinical portions of their classes and graduate from the Mesa Community College nursing program as scheduled in December, according to the judge.

Both students said they felt relieved by this, although they don’t yet know the details of what the district will do.

The students had been assigned a few days of clinical shifts at the Mayo Clinic starting this week and later this month. Prior to the judge’s order, this was a problem because Mayo requires vaccinations and does not allow religious exemptions, according to the district.

Maricopa Community Colleges require that students meet the immunization policies of clinical partners they may work with, as they must attend in-person clinics to complete their academic requirements.

The district argued in court that it couldn’t easily change students or adjust to simulated virtual clinical changes, but now it looks like it can. The district could also appeal the decision.

The judge’s order only responds to the students’ demand for emergency relief, said Colleen Auer, the student lawyer. But that also largely addresses the larger complaint, as all that needed to be resolved for students to graduate on time was the issue of upcoming in-person clinics, she said.

“The impact on these individual students is enormous and it will give them back their future, their educational and professional future, and there is simply no way to stress how such an incredible gift this is for these students,” said declared Auer.

Both students earn their associate degrees in applied science nursing, making them eligible to then apply for a registered nurse license. The two said they plan to work for places that don’t require the COVID-19 vaccine. Most large hospital systems have immunization mandates.

District officials “are carefully evaluating Judge Logan’s decision and considering our options,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“Maricopa Community Colleges remain committed to providing high quality nursing education to all of our students and will continue to work with them in a way that supports their religious beliefs, values ​​and personal circumstances. “

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Judge: the district must welcome the students

The judge in his order said that since all of the students have invested in their nursing education, the Maricopa Community Colleges’ immunization policy “undoubtedly puts considerable pressure on them to change their behavior by violation of their beliefs.

“Complainants are faced with the choice, on the one hand, to compromise their religious beliefs in order to complete their clinic and graduate as planned on December 17, 2021, or on the other hand, to adhere to their convictions and abandon the nursing degrees to which they are otherwise entitled and all their associated benefits for the indefinite future.

The judge’s order means that Thoms and Moreno should be able to complete some sort of clinical alternative that allows them to graduate on time.

Previously, college officials offered them the opportunity to finish the academic part this fall, withdraw from the clinical part, and then finish it in the spring semester if clinical places were available in facilities that do not require vaccination. or offering religious exemptions. Lawyers for the community college district argued that this would only be a delay in getting their degrees, not the “irreparable damage” needed to prove their case.

No one is required to be vaccinated, kicked out of school, or have a failing grade, but, at most, some will be slightly delayed in completing the clinical portion of their nursing program. , argued the district.

The judge decided that given the evolution of vaccination policies in clinical establishments, spring internships would not be a guarantee.

“It is difficult to characterize these circumstances as mere delay when there is no clear end date by which plaintiffs can graduate,” Logan wrote.

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And, he said, this is not just a delay in their education, “but the likely violation of their constitutional and fundamental rights, which is undoubtedly irreparable harm.”

Thoms and Moreno are Christians and oppose vaccines because they used “aborted fetal cell lines in their testing, development or production,” according to the lawsuit.

Moreno said the judge’s decision was a relief. She was traveling to northern Arizona with her husband and children when she heard the news and said they had to stop by to celebrate.

“This whole semester has been so stressful. Honestly, it was hard to focus on anything – trying to study for tests and doing homework, even just going about my day-to-day business – knowing that it could all have been for nothing, ”he said. she declared.

Thoms said it has been “one challenge after another”, like a “roller coaster” since the start of the semester.

“Imagine we’re about to cross the finish line, we’re running, we’re at the very end of the race, and then being told that the rules have changed and you’re not going to win anymore … by getting a degree, ”she said.

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“Our future and the money we paid is all so uncertain so it was really exhausting, losing sleep, trying to study and trying to finish our classes and trying to be a mother and a wife … It was really awful. ”

Although a growing number of hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities require COVID-19 vaccinations for staff, Thoms and Moreno said they would work in places that don’t require not the vaccine.

Thoms plans to do community health education at a non-profit organization; Moreno plans to work in cosmetic nursing, performing procedures like Botox and injectables, as well as part-time hospital work.

“There are other jobs that don’t require a vaccine and they aren’t in a hospital setting,” Moreno said. “There are definitely jobs for nurses that are not the big companies that we see.”

District officials argued that the school itself does not have a vaccination mandate, but students should participate in hands-on medical placements in places that may have vaccine needs.

Logan acknowledged this, writing that the case was not about a government’s vaccine mandate, but rather a “set of educational and administrative policies” that “likely violate” students’ right to the free exercise of religion.

Maricopa community colleges can adjust their policy so as not to “substantially burden” students’ religious beliefs, he said. The burden of the college offering academic alternatives to in-person clinics does not outweigh the burden its policy likely places on students’ religion, he said.

We don’t know what the district will do. A spokesperson declined to comment further. Moreno and Thoms said they hadn’t heard from their school about housing yet.

The options offered by the student lawyer include providing mock clinics or additional assignments, coordinating clinics for them at sites without vaccination requirements, or transferring their assignments with other students.

Testimonies from students and administrators have revealed that those in charge of the nursing program have already made some adjustments to its policy at least twice this semester to help other students for non-religious reasons.

“The case (of the students) is not in doubt, and the harm they alleged – the violation of their constitutional and fundamental right to free exercise – is a wound of the utmost importance under the Constitution and the law, ”Logan wrote.

Case still in progress

Logan’s decision dealt only with the request for a preliminary injunction, the emergency aid the students had requested. The case is expected to continue, and more evidence may be presented and this order may be challenged.

Nothing had been filed since the judge’s order on Friday, according to a Monday afternoon check of the court record.

Auer, the attorney for the students, said the big question has been resolved and the students have been given the relief they were looking for in completing some sort of clinical experience and graduating on time in December.

“It turned people’s lives upside down and called their future into question, giving them the certainty that they have been hoping for for so long, for months now,” she said.

Relief will only apply to two students who have continued, even if there are others in similar situations. But Auer thinks the district may need to reassess its vaccination policy more broadly.

“This (the judge’s order) has, in my opinion, broader implications than these two plaintiffs,” she said. “He is discussing conduct that is not in accordance with the applicable First Amendment and state free practice law, so the district is going to have to assess its policy.”

A story about higher education? Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4282. Follow her on Twitter @alsteinbach.

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