Maricopa County Community College District (MCCCD) may not prohibit nursing students with a religious objection to the COVID-19 vaccine from completing clinical rotations due to being unvaccinated, according to the U.S. District Court for Arizona.
U.S. District Judge Steven Logan issued the ruling Friday, as he’d promised at the hearing on Monday. The two plaintiffs – nursing students Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno – were granted a preliminary injunction against MCCCD’s vaccination requirement. Thoms and Moreno will be able to complete their nursing programs one way or another, whether by accommodation or through regular clinical rotations, by their scheduled graduation date next month.
“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.”
While MCCCD claimed that they required universal vaccination due to their clinical partners’ requirements, Logan cited evidence given by the plaintiffs to the contrary. This evidence included MCCCD previously providing similar accommodations to other students for both religious and non-religious reasons: simulated clinicals, extra assignments, finding new clinical sites, and swapping assigned clinic sites requiring vaccination with those that didn’t.
Logan did note that Thoms and Moreno hurt their case by framing the lawsuit as a challenge to a “vaccine mandate,” because MCCCD doesn’t define its vaccine requirements as a mandate. For that reason, Logan modified their request for relief.
“The only vaccine mandates in this case belong to Defendant’s clinical partners, who are not parties before the Court. Rather, Defendant’s Policy is a set of requirements that together, when applied to Plaintiffs, are likely to substantially burden Plaintiffs’ right to freely exercise their sincere religious beliefs in violation of FERA and the First Amendment, to cause Plaintiffs irreparable harm, and to go against the public interest,” wrote Logan.
Both Christians, Thoms and Moreno objected to the COVID-19 vaccine due to its reliance on fetal cell lines during its testing, development, and production.
MCCCD Board Member Kathleen Winn criticized the district’s decision to hire a group of attorneys just to fight two nursing students. She also asserted that the nursing department head lied in court.
When this started back in August the administration could have done what this judge ordered us to do here. Instead we hired 5 attorneys to fight against these nursing students who represent thousands more in our state. The head of our nursing department lied in court, was caught and the judge made the best decision for these students allowing them their religious exemptions. If we appeal we are using taxpayers money to do so. Stand with these nursing students…I am proud of them and the moral courage to put it all on the line for the greater good!
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.
Two nursing students, Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno, are fighting for their religious freedom in the face of Maricopa County Community College District’s (MCCCD) vaccine mandate. The district is mandating vaccines to accommodate the requirements of those health care providers per their partnership agreements. Both Thoms and Moreno were denied religious exemptions – an objection to the use of fetal cell lines to either test or produce the COVID-19 vaccines in the market currently – because doing so would place “an undue hardship” on MCCCD. Thoms and Moreno must either get vaccinated and violate their religious beliefs, or effectively never complete their nursing program with MCCCD.
“The pressure the District has placed on [the plaintiffs] to forfeit their religious convictions or their academic programs is unreal and unprecedented and more than some of them could withstand, as the District fully expected. They have figuratively walked through fire and wait just beyond the flames to see if everything they have worked for will go up in smoke because they refuse to sacrifice their sincerely held religious beliefs to mollify an uncompromising District,” asserted the complaint. “[The plaintiffs] oppose abortion and believe it is the sinful killing of innocents and strictly prohibited by their Christian faith, as is the use of abortion-derived fetal cell lines for medical or research purposes. It would be an unthinkable and complicit act in abortion and a violation of their deeply held religious beliefs and moral consciences to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines, given their use of testing.”
In a separate explanation of their vaccine mandate, MCCCD said their decision was supported previously by an executive order issued by Governor Doug Ducey last year. The district did promise that it would review all religious and disability accommodations, noting that each partnered health care provider had their own procedures for religious and disability accommodations. However, even with an approved exemption, MCCCD disclosed that it couldn’t guarantee clinical placement that may result in removal from the course.
MCCCD’s characterization of having its hands tied when it comes to vaccine requirements for clinical placements may not be entirely accurate. According to the complaint, MCCCD did confirm with Thoms and Moreno that at least three health care centers do allow for unvaccinated students without exemptions to participate in clinical rotations, at least two health care centers allow unvaccinated students based on religious or other exemptions to participate in clinical rotations, at least one health care center allows MCCCD to determine whether or not students must be vaccinated, and at least one health care center hasn’t issued an official vaccination requirement for clinical rotations. In total, the complaint alleged that MCCCD didn’t know the vaccination requirements for 28 of its 36 major clinical partners – not including their affiliates.
According to the complaint, MCCCD alleged that their sweeping vaccine mandate was necessary because they randomly assign clinical placements and a student might end up at a partnering health care center that requires universal COVID-19 vaccination. Thoms and Moreno’s attorney, Colleen Auer, asserted in the complaint that this was false. She noted that students may pick their top three clinical site preferences and MCCCD assigns based on those selections.
Noncompliance with the mandate will cost Thoms and Moreno several years of time, money, and sacrifices they’ve invested into the program. In several weeks, they will be dropped from their clinical rotations and prevented from receiving their associate’s degree in nursing in December.
U.S. District Judge Steven Paul Logan is scheduled to hear the case on Monday: a week before MCCCD’s fall clinical rotations begin and the deadline for showing proof of vaccination, November 8. That’s also the date that the Biden Administration suggested for compliance with their vaccine mandate.
The Office of Personnel Management informed federal employees and companies with over 100 workers that the second dosage of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the first dosage of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine, must occur on or before November 8 for full compliance.