A federal judge says that while a medical college in Monroe may have valid reasons for doing so, it cannot deny admittance to three would-be doctors who don't want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty on Tuesday granted a temporary restraining order against the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, saying it could have done more to accommodate the students' "deeply held religious beliefs" as they sought to enroll this fall.
The medical school known as VCOM initially said in early summer that because students work directly with patients who need protection from COVID-19, they had few options. They could withdraw their applications or defer enrollment for a year. Or, they could either do work that doesn't involve patient care or enroll in an education pathway that "defers clinical involvement."
On Aug. 9, the court said, VCOM reached out to the students to approve their religious exemption "for the current time," and with certain additional restrictions, including,
- Their exemption would expire once a COVID vaccine was fully authorized by federal regulators
- Wear a mask except when eating or drinking, and stay at least 6 feet from all others while eating or drinking
- Stay away from campus if ill, and report illnesses, and submit to a COVID test if they had any COVID symptoms
- Work with other students only if the other students agreed to work with someone who is unvaccinated
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Doughty, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said the accommodations VCOM offered were too restrictive.
"Particularly, the students would not be able to graduate or advance because they will not be able to engage in Standardized Patient Examinations and Early Clinical Experiences, which are requirements for graduation … even if wearing a mask," he wrote.
VCOM holds a public-private collaboration agreement with the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Doughty said VCOM is subject to Louisiana's 2010 Protection of Religious Freedom Act, and could meet part of its requirements, but not all.
"VCOM can likely show a compelling state interest (safety of students, employees, and patients), but it is unlikely to meet the second prong, that it used the least restrictive means of compelling that interest," he wrote.
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According to the court record, Rachel Lynn Magliulo, Matthew Shea Willis and Kirsten Willis Hall believe the vaccine was devised from aborted fetal tissues, violating their religious beliefs. They also dissented because vaccines are currently authorized for emergency use and they consider them experimental.
Several types of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue exist and are widely used in medical manufacturing, but the cells in them today are clones of the early cells, not the original tissue.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said last winter, when vaccines became available, “Given that the COVID-19 virus can involve serious health risks, it can be morally acceptable to receive a vaccine that uses abortion-derived cell lines" if others are not available.
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The Louisiana attorney general's office was initially listed among the plaintiffs but withdrew after Doughty asked why. It said this month it wasn't a "real party" in the case but rather had only a "general governmental interest" in its outcome.
Doughty said the temporary restraining order would remain in place until the lawsuit's resolution.