PJI Stands Up To Oregon College Enabling Its Student Nurse Clients To Graduate

SALEM, Ore. – Thanks to PJI’s efforts to keep them in school, several nursing students who once faced expulsion from their community college for declining to receive COVID-19 vaccines for religious reasons will graduate this Friday.

The students – all Christians from various denominations – recently completed their degree requirements in the nursing program at Umpqua Community College (“UCC”) in southern Oregon. To earn their degrees and become licensed nurses, they had to complete “clinicals” – internships in which they worked with patients under close supervision. UCC partners with Mercy Medical Center (“Mercy”) in Roseburg – the only hospital in Douglas County, the fifth-largest county in Oregon – to enable its students to complete their clinical requirements.

In August 2021, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a statewide mandate requiring healthcare workers, including student personnel, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The mandate, however, allows employers in the healthcare industry to grant exemptions who opposed receiving COVID-19 vaccines for religious reasons.

The trouble started in late September when Mercy announced that it would not grant religious exemptions to student personnel. UCC declared soon thereafter that because Mercy would not grant exempt nursing students from the statewide vaccine requirement, UCC would not, either.

UCC thus gave the students three options: 1) get vaccinated by October 4 and remain on track to complete their degrees; 2) withdraw from the nursing program, re-apply at a future date with no guarantee of readmission, and re-take the classes that they would not have completed due to their withdrawal; or 3) be expelled from the nursing program, receive grades of “F” in all of their classes, forfeit money spent on tuition and effectively be blackballed from enrolling at any other nursing program in Oregon. Because the students could not, in good conscience, receive the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons, this meant their futures as nurses were at stake.

For this reason, the nursing students reached out to PJI’s Oregon office for assistance.

“One of these students was UCC’s Outstanding Student of the Year for the 2020-21 school year,” said Ray Hacke, PJI’s Oregon-based staff attorney. “She’s a mom who spent four years sacrificing sleep and time with family in pursuit of her nursing degree. She called me in tears because the school was pressuring her to withdraw, which would have rendered wasted the hard work and significant progress she’d made toward her degree.”

Hacke responded by firing off a letter to UCC reminding the school that both Oregon law and the U.S. Constitution prohibit community colleges from discriminating against students based on their religion and threatening a lawsuit if it did not back down. Within days, UCC did just that, allowing the students to complete their coursework and earn their degrees.

Now, their graduation day is finally here.

“In hailing these students, we’re celebrating not only their personal achievement, but a victory for religious liberty,” PJI President Brad Dacus said. “The Constitution protects against religious hostility, and the school demonstrated tremendous hostility here. Thankfully, they repented and did the right thing by allowing them to fulfill their calling to serve the sick and infirm.”