justice
First Hearing Held for Phoenix Nursing Students’ Religious Fight Over Vaccine Mandate

November 1, 2021

By Corinne Murdock |

On Monday, the U.S. District Court for Arizona held a hearing to determine whether senior nursing students Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno will be granted an injunction for Maricopa County Community College District’s (MCCCD) vaccine mandate for participation in clinical rotations, necessary for the two to complete their programs.

As AZ Free News reported, Thoms and Moreno have just one week before MCCCD’s vaccination deadline and the start of clinical rotations. Thoms and Moreno are seeking an affirmative injunction against the vaccine mandate; the district court expedited the case due to the timing of the deadline and clinical rotations.

Thoms and Moreno filed their complaint after MCCCD denied their religious exemption requests. The district claimed that offering exemptions would jeopardize their partnership agreements with certain health care providers and place an undue hardship on the district. These claims were rejected by Thoms and Morenos’ lawyer repeatedly in court Monday, citing several health care providers that didn’t require COVID-19 vaccination.

Thoms and Moreno’s religious objections concerned how aborted fetal cell lines were used in the development and testing of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those are lab-grown cells based on the cells derived from aborted fetal remains obtained in the 1970s and 1980s.

Christians believe that God creates a new life at conception, and will cite concepts such as “one flesh” in Genesis 2, God’s formation of man in the womb in Psalm 139, and the recognition of Jesus as alive shortly after he was conceived in Luke 1.

During Monday’s hearing, MCCCD had five lawyers while Thoms and Moreno had only one, Colleen Auer. U.S. District Judge Steven Paul Logan presided over the case – he was appointed by previous President Barack Obama in 2014.

From the get-go, it appeared that Logan was skeptical of MCCCD’s position. Near the beginning of the hearing, Logan asked the defense to clarify if they were forcing students to get a vaccine that wouldn’t protect them or their patients from COVID-19. The judge’s question likely relates to the developing studies on breakthrough infections among the vaccinated – some recent studies show as little as 1 in 5,000 vaccinated individuals experience breakthrough cases, while others show as high as 1 in 100.

The crux of Thoms and Moreno’s argument was that MCCCD’s mandate effectively would require them to either act against their religious beliefs or sacrifice all of their investments and, effectively, careers.

MCCCD claimed that Thoms and Moreno wouldn’t be given failing grades for not complying. Rather, they would receive an “incomplete” grade and would need to resume the unfulfilled portion of their studies later. MCCCD didn’t add that Thoms and Moreno may never be able to complete their studies without the vaccination.

Auer bucked MCCCD’s statements. She claimed that MCCCD either gave Thoms and Moreno no information or misinformation. She emphasized that these nursing programs are difficult to be accepted into, with long wait lists.

“The realities are that it took them very long times to get into these programs,” stated Auer.“ It’s not possible or guaranteed as [MCCCD] claimed that they will ever be able to finish these clinicals in the [near future.]”

MCCCD’s attorneys argued that Thoms and Moreno didn’t qualify for an immediate affirmative injunction because they wouldn’t suffer irreparable injuries. They also claimed that an incomplete grade would only be a “delay by a matter of months,” which wouldn’t have a lasting negative impact on the students. “Plaintiffs will not suffer irreparable injury. They’re not being compelled to take the vaccine, they’re not being given failed grades,” said defense. “What we’re talking about is a slight delay in completing their course work.”

MCCCD’s lawyers also claimed that Thoms and Moreno’s religious freedom arguments were unrelated to MCCCD’s refusal to grant either an exemption. They said it was a neutral policy that applied to all nursing students, made on the basis of a rational basis review via a legitimate government-based purpose. If MCCCD did accommodate Thoms and Moreno, the lawyers argued that such an exemption would cause financial and administrative burdens, as well as cause potential contractual harm.

Auer rejected the characterization of MCCCD’s vaccine mandates as a neutral policy.

“The fact is, this is not a neutral policy. It selects certain folks to get the religious advantage based on the luck of their clinical assignment,” stated Auer. “They were put to the choice: if you want to continue your program and complete it as you contracted for, […] you must sacrifice your religious beliefs or you won’t get that, period. They’re pulling services for which these people paid, for which they’re entitled, with no certainty of what the district says.”

Additionally, MCCCD indicated that there was a public health interest to require vaccinations. Auer questioned which was the greater public health interest – a few vaccinated nurses but a workforce shortage, or plenty of nurses.

“The public is going to lose out on graduating nurses right here right now at a time where they need those nurses,” said Auer. “There’s a shortage of nurses here and across the country. It doesn’t matter if they’re vaccinated or if they’re not – they need them in the COVID-19 wards.”

Judge Logan stated that he would take the briefing under advisement. The order will be issued Thursday by 5 pm.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.

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