By Corinne Murdock |
After a court ruling against them earlier this month, Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) honored the religious exemptions of two students who objected to the use of fetal cell lines to develop, test, and produce the COVID-19 vaccine. The two nursing students, Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno, were needing to complete clinical rotations to finish their final semester of MCCCD’s nursing program. Thoms and Moreno were given their requested 36 hours of capstone experience in clinical care, scheduled to begin and end in time for their expected graduation date next month.
In court, MCCCD argued that a blanket rejection of religious exemptions was necessary for their nursing program due to the vaccination requirement of some of their clinical partners and their program’s random assignment of clinical rotations. U.S. District Judge Steven Logan rejected that rationale based on the arguments of Thoms and Moreno: their lawyer pointed out that MCCCD gave similar accommodations to other students for both religious and non-religious reasons.
Logan asserted that Arizona’s Free Exercise of Religion Act (FERA) was enacted to prevent the very choice that MCCCD was forcing Thoms and Moreno to make.
The burden imposed here by denying Plaintiffs their nursing degrees […] cannot be characterized as ‘trivial, technical, or de minimis.’ […] By denying Plaintiffs their nursing degrees, Defendant prevents them from becoming licensed and employed as nurses. They will be unable to join the profession to which they have devoted themselves for the past two years. Given the time and money that Plaintiffs have invested in their nursing education, Defendant’s Policy undoubtedly places substantial pressure on them to modify their behavior in violation of their beliefs. Plaintiffs are faced with the choice of, on the one hand, compromising their religious beliefs to complete their clinicals and graduate as expected […] or, on the other, adhering to their beliefs and giving up the nursing degrees to which they are otherwise entitled and all their associated benefits for the indefinite future.
Another argument MCCCD presented was the claim that Thoms and Moreno were only facing a temporary delay, not complete removal from the program. However, they couldn’t guarantee when, if ever, Thoms and Moreno could complete the program. The ability for Thoms and Moreno to finish relied on clinical placement with a partner that didn’t require vaccination: a future contingency which MCCCD couldn’t guarantee completely. Logan asserted that MCCCD’s inability to decisively ensure completion of the program wasn’t a “mere delay.”
“It is difficult to characterize these circumstances as a mere delay when there is no clear end date when the Plaintiffs will be able to graduate,” ruled Logan.
MCCCD’s prompt compliance with the court order was likely influenced in part by the language of Logan’s ruling. The judge asserted that the harm Thoms and Kamaleilani would’ve experienced under MCCCD would constitute “an injury of the highest order” pertaining to the Constitution’s religious freedoms.
“Plaintiffs have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of both of their claims, that they are likely to suffer irreparable harm absent injunction, and that the balance of equities and the public interest weigh in their favor,” wrote Logan. “Their case is not doubtful, and the harm that they have alleged – the violation of their constitutional and fundamental right to free exercise – is an injury of the highest order under the Constitution and the law. Such an injury cannot be remedied by damages.”
Logan heard the case last month, and issued a preliminary injunction against MCCCD that same week. Logan’s order is reproduced below:
The Court enters a preliminary injunction as follows: 1. Defendant is preliminarily enjoined from enforcing against Plaintiffs its requirements that nursing students satisfy the vaccination policies of their assigned clinical partners and that nursing students must complete their assigned in-person clinical rotations in order to complete their academic programs. 2. Defendants shall make available to Plaintiffs a suitable accommodation that will allow Plaintiffs to satisfy the clinical components of their coursework and complete their academic programs as scheduled in December 2021. IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that the Court exercises its discretion and waives the requirement of a security bond accompanying this preliminary injunction.