Nebraska judge refuses to block Creighton University COVID-19 vaccine requirement

Dive Brief: 

  • A Nebraska judge has refused to block a Creighton University requirement that all students be vaccinated against the coronavirus after a group of students objected to the mandate for religious reasons, The Associated Press reported
  • Douglas County District Judge Marlon Polk said in his ruling last week that the students’ case would likely fail because they signed a university form promising to get vaccinated once one of the shots was fully approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 
  • A lawyer representing the students didn’t immediately respond to Higher Ed Dive’s request for comment Tuesday, making it unclear whether they will continue their legal challenge. 

Dive Insight: 

Legal battles over coronavirus vaccine requirements continue to proliferate, even though the law is usually on the side of mandates.

But cases over which groups are entitled to exemptions from such requirements can be thornier. Judges haven’t always ruled against these groups, creating a patchwork of different court decisions colleges must navigate regarding vaccine requirements.

A federal judge in August temporarily prohibited Western Michigan University from removing four players from the women’s soccer team who sued the university.

Those players argued that the institution’s vaccine mandate violated their religious freedoms when officials denied their exemption requests.

The university required athletes to be vaccinated to play sports, but nonathlete students who weren’t vaccinated could instead be tested regularly for the coronavirus to be on campus. A lawyer for the students argued they would be willing to undergo testing.

In that case, the judge wrote in the order that the students would likely succeed in their argument.

However, the court decision affecting Creighton — which is a Roman Catholic, Jesuit institution — is a blow to students and employees arguing that vaccine mandates at their colleges infringe on their religious liberties. 

A group of students sued Creighton University earlier this month, arguing that the institution was violating their rights by not providing a religious exemption to the coronavirus vaccine. They raised concerns that vaccines were developed and tested using fetal cell lines, which are grown in the laboratory and descend from cells taken from elective abortions decades ago. 

In a statement on its website, Creighton stressed that these cell lines are commonly used to test the safety and effectiveness of medications, and that the institution has not previously allowed immunization waivers for religious reasons. The Vatican issued a statement last year saying it is morally acceptable to receive coronavirus vaccines that have used fetal cell lines in their development if other shots aren’t available.

The university gave students until Sept. 7 to show proof of vaccination, Newsweek reported. It also strongly encouraged its employees to be vaccinated, and nearly all of them have, according to a university statement emailed to Higher Ed Dive.

Creighton has said students who participate in on-campus programs without showing proof of vaccination may risk being unenrolled. One of the plaintiffs in the case told Newsweek she was removed from the college’s rolls.

The institution has adhered to all of its policies related to withdrawal and refunds that are listed in its handbook regarding students who were unenrolled because of their refusal to get the coronavirus vaccine, according to the university statement.

“Creighton University, like so many institutions of higher learning around the country, has consistently stated that vaccinations remain our single greatest defense against the COVID-19 virus,” the statement said. 

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