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Colorado medical school sued for denying religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandate

COVID-19, vaccine shot
A health worker delivers a vaccine shot into an arm in this undated file photo. |

A medical school in Colorado has been sued by a student and a faculty member who allege that they were wrongfully punished for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine on religious grounds.

The two plaintiffs, one Catholic and one Buddhist, have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on Wednesday against the University of Colorado Anschutz School of Medicine.

According to the lawsuit, the university rejected their requests for an exemption to a schoolwide mandate even though the two unnamed plaintiffs hold religious objections to getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the lawsuit, the university would only grant religious exemptions to individuals whose religious beliefs involved opposing "all immunizations," as opposed to just objections to the COVID-19 vaccine.

As a result, the Catholic staff member is facing a possible termination while the Buddhist student has already been compelled to take a "leave of absence" from his coursework.

"Plaintiffs are aware that hospitals and medical schools across the country, and within the University of Colorado's own health care system, have offered religious accommodations to similarly situated individuals who work directly with and around COVID vulnerable patients," argued the lawsuit.

"Their experience, which is consistent with national media reports, confirms that there can be no compelling interest in categorically forbidding similar accommodations for Plaintiffs here simply on the basis of the nature of their religious beliefs and the University's view of the veracity of those beliefs."

Thomas More Society Vice President and Senior Counsel Peter Breen, whose organization is representing the plaintiffs, claimed in a statement that the university had "enacted a policy dividing its staff and students into two categories based on their religious beliefs."

"The 'sheep' whose religions teach the approved orthodoxy receive exemptions to the university's Covid vaccine mandate, but the 'goats' who hold non-approved religious beliefs are refused exemptions, and then fired or expelled," Breen stated. 

Breen believes the university was "rendering value judgments on believers in an inquisition that further violates the First Amendment."

According to the Anschutz School of Medicine's website, all students, faculty and other personnel must be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they successfully apply for an exemption based on medical or religious objections.

"Unvaccinated individuals are required to follow alternative procedures on campus, which include completing the daily health questionnaire, wearing masks and distancing and complying with mandatory weekly COVID-19 testing," the school's website explains.  

As more schools and businesses require COVID-19 vaccinations for their personnel, some have objected for religious reasons. Some object over how cell lines from aborted fetuses were used in the vaccine research.

In July, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York issued a memorandum saying that priests can't grant religious exemptions for getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Pope Francis has made it very clear that it is morally acceptable to take any of the vaccines and said we have the moral responsibility to get vaccinated," a memo from New York Archdiocese Chancellor John P. Cahill reads. 

"By doing so [a priest] is acting in contradiction to the directives of the Pope and is participating in an act that could have serious consequences to others."

In New York, 17 healthcare workers filed a lawsuit seeking religious exemptions to a vaccine mandate that required more than 600,000 workers in public and private hospitals and nursing homes to receive their first dose of the vaccine by Monday. 

They were also represented by the Thomas More Society. On Sept. 14, a federal judge issued an order temporarily preventing the New York health department from rejecting employer-approved religious exemptions. The order was extended last week and will last until Oct. 12. Their lawsuit pushes back on the memo from Catholic leadership in New York. 

"They do not accept the opinion — expressed by certain other Catholic bishops, the Pope included — that there is a therapeutically proportional reason to resort to abortion-connected vaccines which can justify 'remote' cooperation in abortion," the lawsuit argues. "They reject as a matter of religious conviction any medical cooperation in abortion, no matter how 'remote.'"

In July, two students at a dental school in Missouri were granted religious exemptions to a vaccine mandate after a Christian conservative legal group sent a demand letter.

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