I have seen some crazy iterations of blatant First Amendment violations in fighting college vaccine mandates, but the state of Colorado has managed to be so blatantly hostile to my client’s, Alex Cullen (a University of Colorado medical student), religious beliefs that it is the worst First Amendment violation I have seen by far. Instead of merely denying Mr. Cullen’s religious exemption, University of Colorado administrators curtly lectured him on how his religious beliefs are not actually part of a comprehensive system of religious beliefs and are merely erroneous personal beliefs. They then referred him to a faculty committee for administrative action, including possible expulsion.
The First Amendment indisputably prohibits the University of Colorado’s actions, and, for a state that already received a stern warning about hostility toward religion from the U.S. Supreme Court in Jack Philips’ case, it apparently has not learned its lesson.
Mr. Cullen is a third-year medical school student at the University of Colorado. He objects to taking the COVID-19 vaccines because of the use of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses and his belief that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines foreshadow the coming of the anti-Christ system through their capacity to alter the human genetic code.
So fervently does Mr. Cullen stand in his convictions that he went to great lengths to explain his beliefs to the University of Colorado, delivering a neatly composed homily complete with citations to Biblical passages that could very well have been delivered on a Sunday morning in church.
Here’s a portion of the exact response that he received from the University of Colorado:
The rationale provided does not constitute a religious belief, but a personal objection to receiving the vaccine. You express disagreement with the development of the vaccine and disbelieve the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people. The basis for your objections are all of a personal nature and not part of a comprehensive system of religious beliefs.
As I have discussed before, the First Amendment’s religious protections are individualistic, not sectarian. The Supreme Court defined religion as individualistic in Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333, 342 (1890): “[T]he term ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, and to the obligations they impose of reverence for his being and character, and of obedience to his will.”
It also laid down a clear line in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 15 (1947), prohibiting government entities like the University of Colorado from requiring sectarianism: “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion.”
Colorado’s attempt to condition Mr. Cullen’s religious exemption on “a comprehensive system of religious beliefs” departs so far from the First Amendment’s boundaries as to be unrecognizable in American history. There is no other way to describe it. The state’s actions reek of prejudice and discrimination, and they cannot stand First Amendment scrutiny.
In the end, Colorado might have gotten too cute for itself too. Thanks to fabulous Colorado local counsel – Miller Leonard, we quickly identified that Colorado law allows for personal belief exemptions to university vaccination requirements.
In other words, Colorado should have never denied Mr. Cullen’s request and threatened him with the possibility of expulsion. The First Amendment prohibits the denial, and Colorado law does as well.