Judge blocks Louisiana medical school vaccine requirement

Medical school cannot exclude unvaccinated students, judge ruled

By: - August 18, 2021 2:07 pm
Judge grants restraining order against Louisiana med school vaccine mandate

A healthcare professional organizes a tray of COVID-19 vaccine vials. (Getty Images)

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked a north Louisiana medical college from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for students or placing significant restrictions on those who refuse to get vaccinated.

U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty of the Monroe division of the Western District of Louisiana ruled in favor of Rachel Lynn Magliulo, Matthew Shea Willis and Kirsten Willis Hall — three students at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM). 

The students refused the COVID-19 vaccine for what they said were religious beliefs and concerns over its emergency-use only authorization from the federal government. They  submitted written dissents for exemptions from the college’s vaccine mandate, which they said the college denied, according to the lawsuit.

VCOM, a private college located on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Monroe, argued that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue because the school ultimately granted the students’ exemptions to the vaccine mandate. 

But while granting the exemptions, the school placed “excessive” restrictions on the students, the judge wrote. They included requiring the students to disclose their unvaccinated status to classmates with whom they came into close contact and restricting them from participating in clinical training that is required in order to graduate. 

“Restrictions that keep students from completing their curriculum defeats the purpose of having the right of dissent,” Doughty wrote. 

Among his reasons for the ruling, Doughty pointed to the Louisiana statute that permits school vaccine exemptions based on written dissents from students.

The same statute also permits schools to exclude unvaccinated students from attendance in the event of an outbreak at the school; however, the judge wrote, that exclusion “mechanism requires the recommendation of the Louisiana Office of Public Health. VCOM does not have a recommendation from the Louisiana Department of Public Health to exclude from attendance unimmunized students.” 

The statute does not permit VCOM to judge or restrict a student dissent, Doughty said. Student dissent can be based upon religious beliefs or any other reason, the judge wrote. By voting to accept — but place restrictions upon — the students’ dissent, VCOM violated the statute, he wrote. 

“Rather than restrictions, VCOM’s only options are either to allow the dissenting students to attend VCOM or obtain approval from the Louisiana Department of Health to exclude unimmunized students from admission,” Doughty wrote.

The health department has granted a few other private universities in Louisiana permission to issue a student COVID-19 vaccine mandate, but VCOM is in a different position because of a cooperative agreement it has with the University of Louisiana – Monroe (ULM), Doughty wrote. State laws apply to VCOM regarding vaccines that might not apply to private entities, he said.

“Although VCOM has an interest in protecting its students, its students are allowed to attend ULM functions, participate in ULM intramural events, study in the ULM library and mingle with ULM students, who are not required to get the vaccine,” he wrote. 

Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office was initially a party to the lawsuit, inserting the State of Louisiana as an additional plaintiff in the case, but Landry withdrew from the case just two days after filing suit, opting instead to file an amicus brief (a statement of support for the students).

Landry’s office sent out a press release Wednesday praising the decision. 

“This is a win for the people of Louisiana who have sincerely held religious convictions and other reservations about these vaccines,” wrote Liz Murrill, an attorney in Landry’s office. “The bottom line is that the law and constitution still apply. We are grateful to Judge Doughty for protecting their rights and upholding the rule of law, and we will continue to work toward an acceptable resolution.”

The temporary restraining order will remain in effect pending the final outcome of the case. 

VCOM did not immediately respond Wednesday.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

VCOM TRO

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Wes Muller
Wes Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Much of his journalism has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and coverage of municipal and state government. He has received recognitions including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus and a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his two sons and his wife, who is also a journalist.

MORE FROM AUTHOR