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Court Upholds University Of Colorado’s Vaccination Policy
On September 1, 2021, the University of Colorado (University) implemented a vaccination policy such that unvaccinated individuals who did not have a medical or religious exemption would not be allowed to access the University’s Medical Campus facilities. On September 24, 2021, the University amended its vaccination policy. Under the amended policy, medical accommodations were still available to employees and students, but religious accommodations were no longer available to students. Current and former employees and students of the University’s Medical Campus (Plaintiffs) sued the University alleging that the University violated their rights by denying their requests for religious exemptions from the University’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement, and requested that the court stop the enforcement of the amended policy through injunctive relief.
The U.S. District Court of Colorado denied the Plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief. The court concluded that with respect to the amended policy, the Plaintiffs had not shown a likelihood of success on the merits because the policy is neutral on its face and as applied to the Plaintiffs, generally applicable, and rationally related to the goal of protecting public health. The court first noted that under the Constitution, the right of the free exercise of religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with an otherwise valid and neutral law that is generally applicable. The court stated that the University’s amended policy is neutral because it applies to anyone who works or learns on the University’s Medical Campus. The policy does not restrict any religious practices because of their religious nature. The court also found the policy was neutral as applied to the Plaintiffs. Allowing employees, but not students, to request religious accommodations treats employees and students differently, but it does not single out religion or religious practices. Additionally, the Plaintiffs have not shown a likelihood of establishing that the University implemented the amended policy “with the aim of suppressing religious belief, rather than protecting the health and safety of students, staff, and the community.” The court noted that contrary to this, the fact that the University amended its policy while navigating a global pandemic does not show that its reasons for denying religious exemptions to students are pretextual.
The court also found that the University has a compelling interest in ensuring that employees and students associated with the University’s medical campus are vaccinated against COVID-19 for their patient’s health and safety, as well as their own. The court noted that during this pandemic, the public interest is not served by adding to that burden additional uncertainty about colleagues’ vaccination status.
Does v. Board of Regents of the University of Colorado (D. Colo. Sept. 29, 2022) No. 0:22-cv-01027, 2022 WL 4547563.
NOTE: This is a Colorado case and therefore not binding in California. However, this case provides insight into how a federal court interpreted a University’s COVID-19 vaccination policy.