The two women at the center of a recently filed federal lawsuit challenging COVID-19 vaccination mandates being required by the nursing program at Maricopa County Community College District say they will not compromise their religious beliefs, and that district officials could do more to accommodate them.
Last Thursday, Emily Thoms and Kamaleilani Moreno became plaintiffs in a case which seeks to require the MCCCD to provide accommodations for the two nursing students who have requested religious exemptions to the mandates.
At risk, according to the lawsuit, is the ability of Thoms and Moreno to remain in the MCCCD nursing program even though they are just weeks away from earning their Associate in Applied Science in Nursing degrees.
U.S. District Judge Steven Paul Logan will conduct a hearing on Nov. 1 on whether to issue a preliminary injunction against MCCCD. Time is of the essence because Thoms and Moreno are scheduled to begin their Fall 2021 clinical rotations on Nov. 8, and must provide proof of vaccination by then.
If they fail to do so, the women will be dropped from their required Clinical Practice classes and given incompletes for the semester.
Thoms and Moreno are represented in the litigation by Scottsdale-based attorney Colleen Auer. The attorney argues the MCCCD vaccine mandate, as applied to Nursing and Allied Health students, “substantially burdens their fundamental right to the free exercise of their Christian religion” and is not the least restrictive option available to college officials to remain compliant with its contractual commitments to its clinic partners.
“Plaintiffs will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of the requested relief because the District’s conditioning of its ongoing educational services to Plaintiffs on their submission to COVID-19 vaccination is forcing Plaintiffs to choose between the precepts of their religion and forfeiting the educational benefits for which they have contracted, labored, and paid,” Auer argues.
At issue is a claim by college officials that each Nursing and Allied Health student must be vaccinated, regardless of medical or religious concerns. The stated reason is that a student could end up assigned to a Clinical Partner who requires the vaccination.
Such assignments are made randomly, the students were told, but Auer claims the actual process calls for students to pick their top three clinical-site preferences, and assignments are then manually determined to accommodate those preferences.
While Auer prepares for next week’s hearing. Thoms and Moreno shared their stories with Arizona Daily Independent. The most important thing they want people to know is that neither ever thought they have to go to court to protect religious rights or their ability to complete their nursing degrees.
Thoms, who lives in Prescott but commutes to Mesa for her classes, has worked as a paramedic for nearly a decade. She and her husband decided that a nursing career would be better for their family now that they have a child, but she was shocked to learn two months ago that she would be required to receive a COVID-19 vaccination if she wanted to complete her degree.
“My focus is entirely on my faith, family, friends, and making my community a better place,” Thoms said. “When this all began, I started by asking for help and following the process / chain of command to ask for help from each superior. Once I started asking for help and asking general questions, I became aware that there was an overwhelming number of inconsistencies.”
Moreno, the mother of three, says she has been working on her nursing degree for six years, during which her husband was diagnosed with cancer and underwent chemotherapy at a hospital four hours from their home.
“There was a year when I would work 10 days in a row, 5am-5pm, then would go straight to night classes after work,” Moreno says. “I wouldn’t get home until 8pm and from there I would have to pick up the duties of being a wife, mom, cook, etc. It was a rough time, and I honestly don’t know how we made it work, but we did.”
Throughout that time, Moreno stayed in school. She is not only enrolled at MCCCD but also Grand Canyon University where she intends to earn a Master’s degree in Nursing. Being dropped from MCCCD because of her religious tenets would undo all of her time, effort, and financial investment.
“I knew (the degrees) would be worth it in the end and I knew that if I could show my kids that anything is possible, it would leave a lasting impression on them. I am so close to the finish line! If I cannot finish my program with Maricopa, that will in turn jeopardize the time, effort, and financial investment that has gone into my degree with GCU as well. I never thought that I would be so close to graduation, only to be told that I cannot graduate due to my religious beliefs,” Moreno says.
Thoms and Moreno chose the Nursing Program at MCCCD for different reasons. For Thoms, it was the availability of a unique bridge program for paramedics seeking to become a registered nurse.
Moreno, on the other hand, specifically selected the District’s Mesa Community College nursing program because of its top ranking in Arizona. They both, however, have always wanted to have a job where they can help people.
“I always knew that I would eventually need to satiate the gap of knowledge I had from emergency medicine to a higher level of care,” Thoms said. “When my husband and I started a family, it became apparent that working a first responders schedule would be difficult with a small child, and that is when I decided to take the next step in my education and begin the journey towards becoming a nurse.”
Moreno recalls wanting to be in the medical field for as long as she can remember, and would tell her parents it was her life plan. And now, her focus on becoming a nurse comes with a specific end game in mind.
“My ultimate goal is to return home to northern Arizona and care for my fellow Native Americans and the surrounding community,” she said. “There are many areas on the reservation, as well as in rural northern Arizona that lack medical facilities and/or the staff to run them. I hope in the future I can contribute to those efforts and work as a nurse in those specific areas.”
According to Moreno, her family and friends support her decision to become involved in the federal lawsuit. After all, she points out that religious freedom is what America was founded on.
“They respect my right to follow my own religious beliefs and to not be penalized with the loss of my educational future for doing so,” she says. “The college is in the business of educating students, and that should be its focus. No one has the authority to tell another person that they must inject themselves with something that violates their religious beliefs. At the end of the day my beliefs and my relationship with God is personal.”
Meanwhile, Thoms wants people to know she will not close the door on her religious beliefs for the sake of convenience.
“My beliefs and practices are my daily life. It encompasses what I eat, where I live, my career, how I raise my child, my relationship with my husband, and every other aspect of my life,” she explained. “It is fundamentally who I am and how I choose every daily decision. Myself and my beliefs cannot be separated, there is not one without the other.”
She also has the support of her family and other emergency responders she works with.
“We collectively have made the decision that, we as a family, feel that this vaccination is a violation of who we are and the life that we have chosen to live,” Thoms said, adding that many of her coworkers “have been extremely supportive in the decision that I have made to stand up for what I believe in. I have a handful of friends that have received the vaccine, because they felt it was best for their families, but they continue to support my beliefs without any form of animosity.”
Both, however, have been deeply disappointed by the reaction of MCCCD officials over the last two months while they pursued religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate.
“I have begged for help from multiple faculty members regarding this situation, and not one single nursing faculty has advocated for me or any other student,” Thoms said. “Instead, I have been bullied, shamed, and made felt to be worthless because my religious convictions forbid me from participating in this sudden vaccination program.”
Such an attitude is hard for her to understand, Thoms said, due to her own work as an educator for Yavapai College’s EMS program where she frequently advocates for individual students.
“Advocacy is also a large concept that every nursing principle is founded on. We always advocate for those that cannot or do not know how to advocate for themselves,” she said. “This is what I am most surprised about from each faculty member in the nursing program.”
Moreno is also disappointed by the attitude of MCCCD officials.
“Emily and I have 3 clinical shifts to complete to graduate,” says Moreno, explaining that MCCCD has assigned both to complete their clinical studies at a hospital which college officials claim is not allowing exemptions. But there are many hospitals accepting religious exemptions or not requiring the vaccine, she says.
“Instead of switching us to a different hospital, allowing us to trade with a fellow classmate, or accommodating us with other reasonable choices that we’ve brought forth to the college, they have decided to deny us any reasonable accommodation and have instead decided to give us a failure or an ‘incomplete’ at the end of the semester,” Moreno said.
“Our religious exemptions have been denied by our college and they are going against their very own mission statement,” she added.