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Students say Loyola Marymount's vaccine mandate is 'apartheid'

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REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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  • Different treatment for unvaccinated violates Constitutional rights, plaintiffs say
  • Students say religious beliefs, medical conditions prevent vaccination

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(Reuters) - Two students at Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University have sued the school over its requirement that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 before coming to school this fall or be subject to other restrictions including masks and testing, likening the treatment of unvaccinated students to "apartheid."

In a complaint filed Saturday in Los Angeles federal court, plaintiffs Ryan Khanthaphixay and Riley O'Neal, represented by Robert Tyler of Tyler & Bursch, also sued Los Angeles County public health officials, saying the school's policy was implemented at their behest.

Loyola Marymount, a private Catholic university with nearly 10,000 students, and the public health department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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The lawsuit is the latest in a series of challenges to vaccine mandates by employers and universities. A federal judge last week rejected a constitutional challenge to a vaccine mandate put in place by Indiana University, a public school.

According to the lawsuit, Loyola Marymount earlier this year informed students who had applied for campus housing that they would be required to show proof that they had been vaccinated, with "case-by-case" exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

The school said that unvaccinated students would have to be tested regularly, quarantine if they tested positive and wear face masks. The school said vaccination was "essential to our community's health and our return to in-person learning, living, and co-curricular activities in the fall," and that it was following recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Khanthaphixay holds a sincere Christian religious belief that his body is a "temple of God" that should not be "contaminated" by the vaccine, according to the complaint. He also alleges that the vaccine violates his religious principles because cells from aborted fetuses were used in its development.

Riley has a medical condition that makes him unable to take the vaccine, the complaint said.

The plaintiffs allege that the vaccine mandate and accompanying restrictions for unvaccinated students violate their right to equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and their rights under California's Constitution.

They say that, while the university requires other vaccines such as measles, mumps and rubella, those vaccines are fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and students who are granted exceptions from them are not subject to different treatment.

"These accommodations have the effect of creating a campus-wide apartheid, with 'vaccine-exempted' students required to live in separate dorms, wear face coverings, social distance, submit to surveillance testing, and have their bodily and medical privacy invaded, while their vaccinated peers are free to move about campus without any special conditions or requirements," the plaintiffs said.

"Simply put, students whose religious convictions and/or medical conditions dictate against them submitting to the vaccine mandate must live as outcasts amongst their peers for at least this academic year, and perhaps the balance of their college careers," they continued.

The two students are seeking a temporary restraining order barring the school from enforcing its vaccine policy.

Three COVID-19 vaccines have received emergency use authorization from the FDA. Two of the manufacturers, Pfizer Inc and Moderna, have sought full approval, and the agency says it expects the approval process to be complete by early 2022 or sooner.

The case is Khanthaphixay et al v. Loyola Marymount University et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 21-cv-06000.

For plaintiffs: Robert Tyler of Tyler & Bursch

For defendants: Not available

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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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