SAN DIEGO — A federal court sided with the San Diego Unified School District Saturday in the district’s effort to issue a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students and staff, according to SDUSD officials.
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied an emergency attempt to halt the mandate, saying the district is acting in the best interests of its students.
“We take seriously our responsibility to create a safe environment for our students and staff, and to protect students put at medical risk by being vaccinated,” said Board President Richard Barrera. “This latest decision recognizes that we have both the responsibility to protect students and the authority to do so by implementing a vaccine mandate, which is really our best hope as a country to get this deadly disease under control.”
The ruling comes two days after San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer denied a temporary restraining order request by an organization called Let Them Choose, seeking to suspend enforcement of the mandate.
According to the court, those opposing the mandate haven’t shown that it was put in place in order to suppress religious beliefs.
On Sunday, judges had agreed to temporarily halt the mandate until the district gave an exemption for pregnant students. The mandate stems from a lawsuit filed in October on behalf of a 16-year-old Scripps Ranch High School student.
“The Court majority correctly recognized that the district’s legitimate interests include protecting the health and safety of students whose health would be placed at risk by being vaccinated, by providing a narrow medical exemption,” San Diego Unified counsel Mark Bresee said.
In order to continue learning in-person, SDUSD says it is requiring students who are 16 and older to be fully vaccinated — excluding those with an approved medical exemption. At least 72 percent of San Diego Unified students 16 or older have been fully vaccinated as of Nov. 8, according to district data.
Attorney Paul Jonna, who represents the 16-year-old’s family, responded to the court’s ruling.
“The Ninth Circuit’s decision refusing to block SDUSD’s unconstitutional vaccine mandate ignores binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court— as Judge Ikuta’s powerful, 16-page dissenting opinion makes clear,” Jonna said. “We will seek emergency relief from the U.S Supreme Court as soon as possible — and we’re confident that a majority of Justices will conclude, like Judge Ikuta, that SDUSD’s vaccine mandate violates the First Amendment and must be enjoined unless SDUSD offers students religious exemptions.”
However, there’s another lawsuit in the works that could put a stop to the mandate once again, led by Let Them Choose.
“We want to see all students have a choice and we want it to be a permanent decision not a temporary injunction,” said Sharon McKeeman, the group’s founder.
She believes their lawsuit will hold up stronger because it puts into question the district’s authority to be stricter than the state mandate. The judge’s decision on this lawsuit could come before the holidays.
“That would be again – a permanent decision,” McKeeman said. “It’s been a lot of up in the air here with these temporary injunctions going back and forth, and parents deserve to know how this is going to go forward.”
The next hearing for the Let Them Choose lawsuit is Dec. 20.
FOX 5’s Kelsey Christensen contributed to this story.