Court strikes down Arizona prohibition on vaccine mandate

An Arizona Superior Court judge struck down as unconstitutional a prohibition on COVID-19 vaccine mandates at public colleges that state legislators had folded into a higher education budget reconciliation act.

The voided section of the law prohibited public universities or community colleges from requiring that students get vaccinated against COVID-19, or placing “any conditions on attendance or participation in classes or academic activities, including mandatory testing or face covering usage” for people who opted against getting vaccinated or disclosing their vaccination status.

The section also banned colleges from requiring COVID-19 testing except in cases of a “significant COVID-19 outbreak” in a student housing setting, and even then only with approval from the state’s Department of Health Services.

Judge Katherine Cooper found that the inclusion of prohibitions on COVID-19 mitigation measures in a budget reconciliation act violated a state constitutional requirement that the subject of an act should be communicated in an act’s title — a requirement that she wrote is intended to ensure transparency and public access to information about the legislative process.

Cooper struck down other provisions of four different budget reconciliation bills — including prohibitions on requiring mask wearing and certain race-related curricula in public K-12 schools — in essence agreeing with the plaintiffs’ argument that lawmakers “used budget-related bills to pass substantive legislation that has nothing to do with the budget.”

The case was brought by the Arizona School Boards Association along with a coalition of education advocacy groups and Arizona residents.

Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich pledged to appeal.

“It’s unfortunate that left-wing groups want to undermine the legislative process and indoctrinate our children with critical race theory and force vaccines on those who don’t want them,” he said on Twitter.

The Arizona Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s three public universities, issued a one-sentence statement Tuesday suggesting that universities are not planning any immediate changes to their COVID policies as a result of the ruling.

“We do not believe yesterday’s ruling impacts any of the current COVID related policies at our public universities and the universities have not indicated any plans to change them,” the Board of Regents statement said.

Arizona’s three public universities currently encourage but do not require COVID-19 vaccination for students, faculty and staff. All require masking in certain settings where distancing is not possible.

Spokespeople for the state’s three public universities — Arizona State and Northern Arizona Universities and the University of Arizona — all referred requests for comment to the Board of Regents statement.

A spokesman for the Maricopa Community Colleges said there are no plans at this point to require vaccines but said the system is “strongly encouraging” faculty, staff and students to be vaccinated if they are able. Masks are required indoors.

Arizona is one of a group of Republican-led states with laws or executive orders prohibiting vaccine or mask mandates in colleges or schools. The American College Health Association has condemned these restrictions, saying in an August statement that they “prohibit higher education institutions from taking responsible and reasonable public health measures and ultimately threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities.”

The United Campus Workers of Arizona, which submitted a declaration supporting the legal challenge to the prohibitions on vaccine and mask mandates, lauded the court ruling as a victory for workers in public higher education and called on universities to strengthen their COVID protocols.

“We believe that now is the time for universities to act,” said Laurie Stoff, a United Campus Workers member and faculty member in the Honors College at Arizona State University. “They have no legal impediments in front of them at all. Nothing is tying their hands to do what is the minimum required to keep the workers and the students at the state universities safe from COVID.”

“We obviously are going to push the universities to implement full masking requirements — as of right now, we only have them in certain areas like classrooms and meeting rooms, but there are very significant areas, like the libraries, the student unions, the dining halls, which do not require mask wearing and are obviously places where COVID can be spread,” Stoff said. “We also absolutely believe that the universities in the state of Arizona should follow the example of about 1,000 universities across the country that mandate vaccines.”

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