Judge bars community college district from enforcing vaccine policy for 2 nursing students

Dive Brief: 

  • A federal judge last week barred Maricopa Community Colleges from enforcing its coronavirus vaccine policy for two nursing students who were previously required to get the shots to complete their clinical placements. 
  • Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno in October sued Maricopa County Community College District, in Arizona, arguing their school’s vaccine policy infringes on their religious liberties. They are slated to receive associate degrees in December but objected to a clinical rotation this term that required them to be inoculated against the virus. 
  • The judge ordered Maricopa Community Colleges to find alternatives to the students being placed at clinical sites mandating the shots, such as simulated clinicals, being assigned to sites without a vaccine requirement or extra assignments. 

Dive Insight:

The judge’s order isn’t a final ruling in the case. But it adds to the patchwork of legal decisions that colleges must navigate when crafting vaccine policies for their students and employees. 

Colleen Auer, the lawyer representing the two students, said the ruling would likely cause colleges to examine whether their vaccine policies protect religious freedoms. 

“If I were in-house counsel for another institution that was putting in place a policy, I would absolutely look at this ruling,” Auer said. 

Exemptions can be a particularly thorny issue.

At least one other court has sided with students who sought exemptions, agreeing that Western Michigan University was violating their religious liberties. Yet a Nebraska judge upheld Creighton University’s mandate that all students be vaccinated against the coronavirus without allowing for religious waivers

In the case against Maricopa Community Colleges, the plaintiffs objected to a three-day clinical rotation at Mayo Clinic, which requires students to show proof of coronavirus vaccination and doesn’t permit religious exemptions. 

Maricopa Community Colleges does not mandate the coronavirus vaccine for all students. But it does require nursing students to agree before enrolling that they will meet the vaccine requirements of “its most stringent partner,” according to court documents. 

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Steven Logan blocked the university from enforcing that policy for the two students suing the district, saying it would likely violate federal and state religious protections. 

According to court testimony, the district had provided alternatives to in-person clinical assignments when one of the plaintiffs was sick and when an entire student group failed to meet a site partner’s compliance requirements. Those instances show the district can make exceptions to its in-person clinical requirement for secular reasons but not for the students’ religious reasons, the judge wrote. 

The Arizona State Board of Nursing also granted the district a temporary waiver through August 2022 allowing it to substitute simulations and other alternative learning experiences for traditional clinical experiences, the ruling noted. 

“It is clear to the Court that Defendant’s true interest in the Policy is in maintaining its relationships with its clinical partners and being able to provide in-person clinical opportunities to future students,” Logan wrote. But, he added, there is no evidence that allowing the students to complete an alternative to an in-person clinical would affect these relationships, meaning the district didn’t have a compelling interest to deny them a policy exception. 

Maricopa Community Colleges is exploring its legal options, Matthew Hasson, a district spokesperson, said in an email. The district is committed to providing the plaintiffs with in-person clinical experiences, according to the email. 

Hasson also said the district’s eight colleges with nursing programs don’t have the resources to engage in a customized clinical placement process. “It is our clinical partners who require COVID-19 and other vaccinations, so we will continue to provide students with information related to our partner accommodation processes and facilitate a smooth clinical placement for our students,” Hasson wrote. 

The case warrants attention because the college had been making some alternatives available to clinical hours, said Audrey Anderson, a higher ed attorney for law firm Bass, Barry and Sims. “Once you’re doing that for some students, you have to really make that kind of accommodation available for other students.”

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