The lawsuit was brought by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry on behalf of three students at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine (VCOM), a private institution that operates six locations across southern United States, including one housed on the campus of the University of Louisiana-Monroe (ULM).
Although VCOM claimed no wrongdoing and argued that its vaccination policy was meant to ensure safety of all students, employees, and patients, U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty of the Western District of Louisiana ruled in favor of the students, granting them a temporary restraining order against the vaccine mandate.
According to the complaint, the VCOM students filed written dissents for exemptions from the school’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement, citing Christian beliefs and concerns over the yet-to-be fully approved vaccines. They said their requests were denied and they faced retaliation for unwilling to get vaccinated.
“These complaints have included recordings of conversations with VCOM staff engaging in harassing and coercive conduct targeting students who have exercised their right to opt-out of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine,” Landry said in July.
The students continued their lawsuit, even after Landry withdrew from the case and VCOM ultimately granted them religious exemptions, because of restrictions that come with the exemption. Under the medical school’s current vaccination policy, all students who are not vaccinated must wear a mask at all times on campus, disclose their unvaccinated status to their labmates, and not participate in certain clinical training programs that are required for graduation.
While Louisiana law permits schools to exclude unvaccinated students from attendance in the event of an outbreak on campus, such exclusion must be approved by the state’s public health department, Doughty wrote in the court’s order (pdf). “VCOM does not have a recommendation from the Louisiana Department of Public Health to exclude from attendance unimmunized students.”
In addition, the same statute does not permit colleges to judge or restrict a student dissent, which can be based upon religious beliefs or any other reason, Doughty said, noting that the medical school violated the statute when it accepted the students’ dissents but placed restrictions upon them.
“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,” the order read.
“Even if [Louisiana law] allows for restrictions to be placed upon a student’s dissent, the restrictions placed by VCOM on Plaintiffs are excessive,” Doughty added. “Restrictions that keep students from completing their curriculum defeat the purpose of having the right of dissent.”
Doughty also pointed to the fact that VCOM shares space with ULM, a public university that doesn’t have a vaccine mandate. “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.
Landry’s office said in a press release it welcomed the decision, calling it a win for Louisianans who “have sincerely held religious convictions” and other reservations about the vaccines.
“The bottom line is that the law and constitution still apply,” said Solicitor General Liz Murrill, who worked with the students on behalf of Landry. “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.”
VCOM-Louisiana did not immediately respond to a request for comment.