Two nursing students are suing the Maricopa County Community College District in federal court over its requirement that they get vaccinated against COVID-19.
The students, Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno, allege in a new lawsuit that the district is wrongfully mandating that nursing students get COVID-19 vaccines in order to participate in clinical rotations in medical facilities as part of their education. They claim that they were denied religious exemptions to the mandate. Both students, who are Christian, are opposed to abortion and cite the fact that fetal cell lines —manufactured cells from two decades-old fetuses — were used during the development of COVID-19 vaccines. (Cell lines are frequently used in medical research.)
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Arizona yesterday. It accuses MCCCD of violating their First Amendment rights as well as Arizona state law concerning religious freedom. The students are seeking an injunction to prevent the district from enforcing its vaccine mandate.
Both students were expecting to graduate from the district's nursing program this December. The completion of clinical rotations, which involve nursing students doing supervised, hands-on work in medical facilities, is required to finish the program.
"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," the complaint states. "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."
Reached by phone, Matt Hasson, a spokesperson for MCCCD, said, "We do not comment on ongoing or pending litigation."
According to the lawsuit, the district mandates that all nursing students get vaccinated to accommodate some partnering medical institutions that host students for clinical rotations that enforce such a mandate. The complaint argues that some facilities don't require that nursing students be vaccinated and that other accommodations could be made, such as creating remote "simulations" for the plaintiffs.
Colleen Auer, a Scottsdale-based attorney representing the students, said that her clients are going to be "kicked out of their programs" because the district "can't find a way" to work around their refusal to get the vaccine. She characterized the district's position as "unreasonable."
"They have a religious — a doctrinal objection to being inoculated with something which in their mind is complicit with the sinful act of abortion itself," she said. "How far can a government go in telling people whether their religious beliefs are acceptable or not?"
Auer made headlines for getting fired from her previous job as city attorney in Minot, North Dakota, in 2015 due to alleged "insubordination." She sued to get her job back, claiming that she was retaliated against for reporting harassment based on sex, but an appeals court shot her down in 2018, asserting that the allegations were "unreasonable." Auer moved to Arizona in 2016.
Asked why the nursing students, who presumably want to work in hospitals, shouldn't get vaccinated to protect themselves and others from the risk of hospitalization and death, Auer said that the alleged "direct attack" on religious freedom is the graver risk to society.
In response to a follow-up question about whether she would represent any person who wanted to sue a government institution whose policies violated their religious beliefs, even if those beliefs involved extreme sex-based discrimination, Auer said that it would depend on the "scenario."