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Court halts San Diego schools' vax mandate while it hears appeal

2 minute read

A nurse fills a syringe with Pfizer vaccine as mobile vaccination teams begin visiting every Los Angeles Unified middle and high school campus to deliver first and second doses of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines in Los Angeles, California, U.S., August 30, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Blake

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  • Order puts mandate on hold while student challenging it on religious grounds appeals
  • Court cites automatic exemption for pregnant students as grounds for stay

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(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Sunday blocked San Diego's public school district from enforcing its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students while it hears an appeal by a high school student and her parents who said taking the vaccine would violate the student's religious beliefs.

In a brief 2-1 order, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Marsha Berzon and Mark Bennett said the mandate would be on hold as long as the school district issued automatic exemptions to any pregnant students, and that the stay would be lifted if that exemption were eliminated. The district's mandate does not provide for religious exemptions.

"Although the case is still in its early stages, this is a significant victory," Paul Jonna of LiMandri & Jonna, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "The San Diego Unified School District should promptly revise its policy to include religious exemptions for students."

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A lawyer for the district could not immediately be reached for comment.

The plaintiffs, who are not identified by name, had argued that students seeking religious exemptions from the mandate were treated differently from other students.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo in San Diego on Nov. 18 had denied their motion for a temporary restraining order blocking the mandate.

Berzon and Bennett wrote that they were issuing the order out of "an abundance of caution" because Monday was the last day that students could be vaccinated and comply with the mandate, which applies to students 16 and older. They did not give details of their reasoning.

Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote in a partial dissent that she would pause the mandate as long as "any students," not just pregnant students, were treated differently from those seeking religious exemptions. She did not elaborate further.

Courts have generally upheld vaccine mandates imposed by schools in the face of a slew of legal challenges.

The case is Doe v. San Diego Unified School District et al, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-56259.

For plaintiffs: Paul Jonna of LiMandri & Jonna; and Christopher Ferrara of the Thomas More Society

For the school district: Mark Bresee of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Rom

Read more:

U.S. Supreme Court's Sotomayor allows New York school vaccine mandate

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Brendan Pierson reports on product liability litigation and on all areas of health care law. He can be reached at brendan.pierson@thomsonreuters.com.

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