A federal judge issued a restraining order against the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Monroe on Tuesday, forbidding the medical school from doing anything that might harm three students who want to study there without receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Last month, three students sued VCOM in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, seeking the court’s protection for a vaccination exemption based on their religious faith.
The students also claimed they have been the subject of discrimination for electing to forgo COVID-19 vaccination.
VCOM has argued the students’ lawsuit was unnecessary because the medical school has since granted them a religious exemption. The three students are Rachel Magliulo, of Ouachita Parish, as well as Matthew Willis and Kirsten Hall, of Lincoln Parish.
“We are pleased with the ruling,” said Monroe attorney Michael “Mickey” DuBos, who represents the students.
In an 18-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty granted the students a temporary restraining order against VCOM. According to Doughty, the medical school’s recently changed vaccination policies represented “potential harm of a constitutional violation, ability to complete their education, ethics charges, and possible expulsion.”
VCOM operates its medical school on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Monroe, or ULM.
“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,” Doughty wrote.
Monroe attorney Mark Neal, who represents VCOM, referred to Doughty’s ruling as “very thorough” and referred to the lack of jurisprudence on certain laws at issue in the case. Some of Louisiana’s religious freedom laws have not been litigated in federal court.
“Amid a national health crisis, we’re navigating an area of law that has yet to fully develop at either the state or federal level,” Neal said. “My client and I will thoroughly review the judge’s ruling before deciding our next course of action. In the meantime, VCOM will certainly abide by the court’s ruling in all manners.”
In a statement earlier this month, VCOM President Dixie Tooke-Rawlins said the medical school had not “punished any student for not being vaccinated” and had created a “pathway for exemption for students who have medical, religious or other types of dissent.”
In his ruling, Doughty outlined a number of instances during which VCOM’s COVID-19 vaccination policy changed during the same time in which the medical school was considering the three students’ exemption requests.
Doughty ruled a student could dissent from vaccination on the basis of religious beliefs or any other reason—without any evaluation of their dissent or any restrictions placed on it.
“If the legislature of Louisiana had intended for a college to be able to restrict students’ dissents, it would have put that language in the statute,” stated Doughty’s ruling.
According to Doughty, VCOM had other options beyond placing restrictions on a student’s dissent.
“Rather than restrictions, VCOM’s only options are either to allow the dissenting students to attend VCOM, or to obtain approval from the Louisiana Department of Health to exclude unimmunized students from admission,” stated Doughty’s ruling.
Any restriction that keeps a student from completing their curriculum defeats the purpose of having the right to dissent from the policy, Doughty said.
“Although granted a religious exemption, the list of ‘accommodations,’ is restricting in nature. 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,” stated Doughty’s ruling.
“The Plaintiffs’ potential harm of a constitutional violation, ability to complete their education, ethics charges, and possible expulsion outweighs VCOM’s interest.”