Federal Judge Upholds UMass Coronavirus Vaccination Mandate Against Religious-Freedom Arguments

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2021/08/27/federal-judge-upholds-umass-coronavirus-vaccination-mandate-against-religious-freedom-arguments/

An Obama-appointed federal judge has denied a request from two University of Massachusetts students for exemptions from school rules requiring they get vaccinated for coronavirus.

The ruling, issued Friday, August 27, sets up a possible appeal that could make it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Cora Cluett, of Quincy, a rising senior and member of the track team at UMass Boston, sought a religious-based exemption to avoid taking the coronavirus vaccine. But a UMass Boston official, interim vice chancellor Shawn DeVeau, “deemed Cluett to be Roman Catholic” and determined “based on DeVeau’s research, the vaccine would not violate the tenets of the Catholic faith,” according to the students’ July 30 complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Some Catholics have raised moral objections to coronavirus vaccines that were tested against the cells of aborted fetuses, arguing that the vaccines are morally tainted because of their connection to abortion, which the Catholic Church teaches is unjustified homicide and a grave evil.

But the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has noted that the makers of the vaccines did not use an aborted fetus’s cells “at any level of design, development, or production,” and has argued that testing the vaccines using “a tainted cell line” amounts to a “relatively remote” connection between the two. The bishops conference issued a document in November 2020 that refers to Vatican documents that decry the use of aborted fetal cells in the creation of vaccines — but that also, according to the bishops, “make it clear that, at the level of the recipient, it is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health.”

Pope Francis has encouraged people to get vaccinated against coronavirus, calling it “an act of love.”

Yet neither the pope nor the bishops have ordered Catholics to get the vaccine, and some Catholics say to do so would violate their conscience because of the connection with abortion. The Catholic Church teaches that Catholics must follow their conscience, which they are supposed to use Church teachings to help develop.

“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (1778).

DeVeau, the UMass interim vice chancellor for student affairs, who according to his email signature identifies with the “He series” of personal pronouns, described in a court filing the process he uses to determine if a student claiming a religious exemption actually qualifies for one.

“When reviewing students’ appeals, I engage in a holistic process:  I review the student’s request, research the faith tradition on which they are basing their request, and respond to the students based on my research,” DeVeau wrote in a document dated August 16. “If students send further replies after receiving my response, I engage in phone or email conversations with them. My process for reviewing appeals is to engage in an interactive process to discuss the student’s specific circumstances and determine if the exemption is based on a sincerely held religious belief.”

Late this week, Judge Denise Casper, appointed in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama, turned down a request by the students for a preliminary injunction against the vaccine mandate, saying the religious-freedom argument doesn’t hold up.

“… UMass is under no constitutional obligation to offer a religious exemption to its Vaccine Requirement,” the judge wrote. She also found nothing problematic about a public university official’s determining what a student’s religion teaches about the vaccine.

“Cluett has not alleged anything to suggest that Defendants have administered their religious exemption policy in a way that burdens some religions but not others … or that Defendants have coerced her in her religious practices …” the judge wrote.

The judge also noted that UMass has offered students the ability to take part online or to take time off.

“Even with the Vaccine Policy, students who choose not to comply with may still take online classes at UMass, or defer their enrollment for a semester, not amounting to irreparable harm. Moreover, the balance of equities tips in Defendants’ favor given the strong public interest here that they are promoting — preventing further spread of COVID-19 on campus, a virus which has infected and taken the lives of thousands of Massachusetts residents,” Judge Casper wrote.

The second student who sought the injunction, Hunter Harris, of Medway, is a rising junior at UMass Lowell. Harris has not argued for a religious exemption or a medical exemption. Instead, Harris’s lawyer has argued that the university can’t force students to take a vaccine that has been approved under a federal emergency-use statute.

As evidence, the students’ complaint cites an excerpt from the UMass Lowell web site in April 2021, before the university announced its vaccination mandate. It includes a question — “Will the vaccine be mandatory for students and employees to return to campus for the fall semester? — followed by this answer:  “The current COVID-19 vaccines are authorized under an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).  While UMass Lowell strongly encourages all members of the UMass Lowell community to receive a vaccine when they are eligible to do so, no one can be required to take a vaccine under an EUA.”

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Court filings earlier this month before the judge’s ruling included what lawyers call a battle-of-experts.

On the anti-mandate side was Dr. Peter A. McCullough, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in public health in epidemiology who is also an expert in internal medicine and cardiology. He submitted a 30-page document (with 174 pages of supporting material) arguing that the coronavirus vaccine provides scant benefit for college-age students in good health and carries risks that make it not worth getting for someone not particularly susceptible to the virus.

Even with the Delta variant driving coronavirus numbers up, Dr. McCullough said, there is an “increasing likelihood” of herd immunity — and a “negligible risk to college age students of serious complications or death to COVID-19.”

“It is my expert medical opinion that the Pfizer vaccine as tested in college age Students does not offer a significant clinical benefit and has a poor benefit to risk ratio. Vaccination to prevent mild viral upper respiratory symptoms in a small fraction (1.6%) of subjects is not justified given the short and longer-term risks of the vaccines,” wrote Dr. McCullough, who is on staff at Baylor University Medical Center in Texas. “… In my expert medical opinion, the risks associated with the investigational COVID-19 vaccines, are not minor or unserious, and many of those risks are unknown or have not been adequately quantified nor has the duration of their consequences been evaluated or is calculable. Therefore, in my expert medical opinion, the Emergency Use Authorization and administration of COVID-19 vaccines for college age students creates an unethical, unreasonable, clinically unjustified, unsafe, and poses an unnecessary risk to the college age students of Massachusetts and the United States of America.”

On the pro-mandate side, Dr. Sharone Green, an associate professor of medicine in infectious diseases and immunology at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, acknowledged that the death rate for coronavirus is low among people ages 18 to 29, but she noted recent increases in infection rates among that age group. She said the mandate makes sense given the current public health situation.

“In my expert opinion, the University of Massachusetts’ requirement that its students be vaccinated against COVID-19 is a safe, effective, and reasonable measure to protect the public health by lessening and/or preventing on-campus and community transmission among students, employees, and their communities and will significantly lessen morbidity and mortality in those populations,” Dr. Green wrote.

Dr. Green said about 2.7 percent of the people in the United States have a compromised immune system, and others have other physical conditions that would make them particularly susceptible to the virus, such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, renal disease, and diabetes. Such people would be more protected if everyone on campus were vaccinated, she argued.

“Immunization of students, faculty, and staff will help not only the individual, but also the community by protecting those who are vulnerable and affording them the same opportunity to participate in all learning and research opportunities on campus,” Dr. Green wrote.

A lawyer for the students could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.


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