SANTA MONICA – A lawsuit filed by a Santa Monica College freshman alleging Santa Monica College’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for in- person learning violates his religious freedom and his right to privacy should be dismissed, attorneys for the Santa Monica Community College District argue in new court papers.
“A person is not entitled to a religious exemption merely by claiming it,” the district’s lawyers argue in court papers filed Wednesday in Santa Monica Superior Court connection with plaintiff Carter Sparks’ lawsuit. “A government entity is not precluded from determining whether there are sincerely held beliefs, as distinct from determining the objective validity of the matters believed.”
Sparks’ suit, brought Jan. 11, seeks court orders declaring that the mandate is unconstitutional and that it exceeds the powers of the district. Sparks also seeks injunctive relief preventing the mandate from being enforced, plus compensatory damages.
The suit also names as a defendant Susan Fila, Santa Monica College’s health services officer, who Sparks believes was among those who denied his request for a religious exemption.
“This lawsuit is primarily an anti-vaxxer attack on a college requirement that a student who wants to attend classes in person — as distinct from online — have received a vaccination against COVID-19,” the district’s lawyers argue in their court papers. “Only secondarily is it a claim of for denial of a religious exemption and for a newly added theory of disability discrimination.”
Sparks’ demand “flies in the face of more than 100 years of decisions that even stricter measures — mandatory vaccinations themselves — were legal and constitutional,” the district’s lawyers further state in their court papers. “(Sparks) concedes that the law is against him.”
In his suit, Sparks maintains that without a judge’s intervention, he will “continue to be treated as a second-class citizen and denied access to an in-person college education.”
The district’s Board of Trustees voted on Aug. 3, 2021, to require that students get a COVID-19 vaccine before attending in-person classes during the fall semester.
“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 states.
However, only the state Legislature has the power to impose a student vaccine directive and it has not done so, according to the suit. Moreover, forced vaccination policies violate Californians’ right to privacy, an express constitutional right that protects an individual’s “freedom of bodily integrity,” the suit states.
Sparks, a Catholic, submitted a request for religious and medical exemptions, stating his belief that he has already contracted COVID-19 and thus has natural immunity to the virus while also providing a letter from a doctor, the suit states.
The college denied Sparks’ request, saying it was unsupported by medical evidence, the suit states. The school also rejected Sparks’ request for a religious exemption, stating that being Catholic does not entitle someone to a religious exemption and the church has no theological objection to the coronavirus vaccines, according to the suit.
Sparks has already lost a semester of education, his court papers state.
But according to the district’s court papers, the district’s policy does not compel vaccination, but instead excludes non-vaccinated from attending classes in person and gives the option of learning online.
Sparks tried to claim an exemption last fall under SMCCD’s policy for religious objections, but his claim was “insufficient and properly rejected,” and he has no claim for later semesters because the exemption was abolished last Sept. 7, according to the district’s lawyers’ court papers.
Sparks’ legal theory that his unvaccinated status amounts to a disability and his claim of discrimination for not being able to attend classes in person are both “absurd,” the district’s lawyers further argue in their court papers.
No date has yet been set by Judge Craig D. Karlan to hear the district’s dismissal motion.