January 11 lawsuit alleges violation of religious freedom and right to privacy
By Sam Catanzaro
A Santa Monica College freshman is suing the school, claiming the college’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate violates their religious freedom and right to privacy. The college’s counsel, however, says these claims are flawed.
On August 3, 2021, the Santa Monica Community College District Board of Trustees voted to mandate that students get a COVID-19 vaccine before attending in-person instruction during the fall semester. Carter Sparks–an SMC freshman denied a religious exemption–filed a Santa Monica Superior Court lawsuit, on January 11 seeking a court order stating that the mandate is unconstitutional and that it overreaches the district’s jurisdiction. Sparks is also seeking injunctive relief preventing SMC from enforcing the vaccine mandate, in addition to compensatory damages.
Sparks, a Catholic, submitted a request for both religious and medical exemptions, stating his belief that he has already had COVID-19 and therefore has natural immunity. The request also included a letter from a doctor.
The lawsuit also lists Susan Fila, SMC’s health services officer, as a defendant. According to Sparks, Fila was among those who denied his request for a religious exemption to the vaccine mandate.
“The board gave vague reasons for this policy, stating, for example, that the shots represent the best way to slow the spread of COVID-19,” the suit reads. “Moreover, forced vaccination policies violate Californians’ right to privacy, an express constitutional right that protects an individual’s freedom of bodily integrity.”
The lawsuit also claims the state Legislature only has the authority to impose a student vaccine mandate, which lawmakers have not done.
A September 9 letter from SMC counsel Robert Myers, however, to one of the Sparks’ attorneys, John Howard, argues that Sparks does not qualify for a religious exemption.
“Carter’s application for a religious exception did not articulate a sincerely held religious opposition to vaccination,” reads the letter, a copy of which was obtained by City News Service. “All the college knows about Carter’s religion is that he is Catholic and went to Catholic school. However, being Catholic does not entitle someone to a religious exemption from vaccination.”
The letter also cited Pope Francis’ support for the COVID-19 vaccines. In addition, Myers claims that the doctor who wrote the letter on behalf of sparks did not contain information that was supported by medical evidence.
“The fact that she did not do so undermines any claim that Carter has a bonafide medical condition that would prevent receiving the COVID-19 vaccine,” the letter reads.