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Sioux Falls Catholic schools attorney, parent react to lawsuit

The Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls supports religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccines and is now blessing a lawsuit against the federal government's new COVID prevention mandates.

Bishop O'Gorman Catholic Schools "sees a tremendous good that has come from the development and utilization of the COVID-19 vaccinations," it says in a FAQ page. "This case is simply about the government stepping in and telling Bishop O’Gorman how it must make its own personnel decisions. The lawsuit has been filed on the basis that we believe this use of government authority to be unlawful."

New federal rules say private employers with 100 or more workers must enforce a vaccine or testing/masking mandate. Workplaces must make "reasonable accommodations" for employees with medical issues or "sincerely held religious beliefs" that make them against the vaccine or testing.

The lawsuit was filed by the school district, rather than the diocese itself, since it's the only entity in the diocese with 100 or more employees, the FAQ says. The school board made its decision "under the pastoral leadership" of Bishop Donald DeGrood, Board President Kyle Groos said in a letter to parents and employees.

The school district says the mandate interferes with its rights as a religious institution.

"Catholic schools have a constitutional and statutory right to apply church teachings in its employment practices and policies and to promote the use of right reason among its employees," the FAQ says.

The school district says the mandate conflicts with the Catholic value of informed consent for medical procedures. It also says it conflicts with the value of following one's conscience as long as "public order can be respected."

Pope Francis is a strong supporter of the vaccine and the Vatican and some U.S. Dioceses have their own mandates.

"I believe that morally everyone must take the vaccine. It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others," Francis said, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

But some Catholics are opposed to the vaccines because they were developed and/or tested on fetal cell lines, or cells grown in labs that descend from decades-old abortions. The vaccines do not contain aborted fetal cells or tissue.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian law firm and advocacy group, is representing the school district at no cost. Attorney Ryan Bangert said the mandate is wrong even with religious exemptions for the vaccine and testing.

“The government mandate will require employers, religious employers, to treat those employees on their payroll who have religious reservations or faith-based reservations about vaccination differently than those employees who do not," he said.

Accepting these alternatives concedes that the federal government can control personnel practices, the FAQ says. The school district is also concerned about the cost and time it takes for weekly testing, invading employer privacy by asking about their vaccine status, and workers being judged for wearing masks.

Tyler Evans send his two sons to the Bishop O'Gorman Catholic Schools. He said he loves the school system but disagrees with its approach to COVID-19, including this lawsuit.

“This is not the fight to have right now in the middle of global health crisis," he said. "Our most important job in education is to educate, keep kids safe. Having the kids in a safe and healthy environment, protected from COVID, is the right way to do that.”

Evans said he doesn't understand why the school district is suing since it tells students they must get certain vaccines.

South Dakota law requires students to obtain several vaccines. Two of those vaccines — for chickenpox and rubella (in the MMR vaccine) — are also developed with fetal cell lines, according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The O’Gorman enrollment webpage says students must obtain required vaccinations but does not explain that state law has medical and religious exemptions.

The FAQ says the key difference is the state vaccine laws apply to students while the federal rules place the burden on the school district and other employers.

"This is a misuse of federal authority," the document says.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.