A group of students at St. John’s University in New York is suing the Catholic school over its vaccine mandate, claiming the requirement violates their right to their religious beliefs.
The 17 plaintiffs say in their suit that they oppose abortion — and therefore do not want to take any of the three federally approved COVID-19 vaccines because the shots were tested using “aborted fetal tissue or human embryonic stem-cell derivation.”
“As a devout Roman Catholic, I believe life is precious. In the Ten Commandments, it says, `Thou Shall Not Kill,’ ” said plaintiff Kimberly Vineski, a 19-year-old, second-year pharmacy student from Glendale, LI, to The Post, referring to abortion.
St. John’s says in court papers that it won’t consider an exemption for the plaintiffs because there are questions about “the genuineness of their purported religious beliefs.”
Then there is the fact that the Catholic Church supports the immunization mandate, which it says doesn’t violate church teachings or dogma.
Still, it’s clear even the Church has wrestled with the vaccines’ testing.
In a guidance paper issued earlier this year, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops concluded that “neither Pfizer nor Moderna used an abortion-derived cell line in the development or production of the vaccine.
“However, such a cell line was used to test the efficacy of both vaccines,” the bishops’ group acknowledged.
It is “wrong to create abortion-derived cell lines and for pharmaceutical companies to utilize them,” and “the use of vaccines produced with such cell lines should be avoided if comparable alternatives with no connection to abortion are available,” the bishops wrote.
But “grave reasons (e.g., serious health risks) may justify the use of vaccines produced with these cell lines when there are no such alternatives,” they wrote.
“While neither vaccine is completely free from any use of abortion-derived cell lines, in these two cases the use is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion,” the paper said.
The paper did not address the third currently available shot, which is manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. But Reuters has reported that the vaccine used “lab-replicated fetal cells,” a k a “fetal cell lines,” in its production process, although the shot itself doesn’t contain any.
St. John’s campuses include locations in Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and Hauppauge, LI.
The students are seeking $2.75 million in damages, barring a change in the school’s position, according to their lawsuit filed in state Supreme Court in Suffolk County on Long Island.
Plaintiff James Callichio II, 40, a Navy veteran and legal-studies major from Staten Island, told The Post, “I couldn’t believe a Catholic university would deny my religious beliefs I fought for.”
He said the university should consider students’ relationship with God — not what clergy higher-ups say — when determining potential waivers.
“The pope is a man. The bishop is a man. They are not God,” the military vet said.
“This is between me and God,” he said of his opposition to the vaccine. “You don’t need a middleman to talk to God.”
Matthew Margolefsky, 19, sophomore business major from Syosset, LI, who is Jewish, is also a plaintiff in the case.
“The Torah teaches us that we should ‘guard thy soul scrupulously,’ ” Margolefsky said.
“I was quite upset that I was rejected for an exemption,” he said, complaining that St. John’s did not have an appeals process. “It violates my beliefs to put this vaccine in my body.”
Still, some other St. John’s students said the vaccine mandate has been a blessing.
“Campus life feels back to normal,” said Ethan Burrell, a 20-year-old junior who is president of student government at the school. “The only thing different is we wear masks.
“The vaccine mandate was necessary to make life come back to normal. The pandemic shut down a lot of activities. Students can now enjoy meeting other students.”
But the plaintiffs’ lawyer, James Mermigis, said, “St. John’s University is trampling on students’ religious rights.
“It’s disgusting,” he said.
Mermigis added that St. John’s also has raised eyebrows by recently honoring alumnus Frank D’Amelio, who is the chief financial officer and executive vice president of global supply for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer Pfizer.
D’Amelio, who graduated from St. John’s with a master’s degree in business in 1983, delivered St. John’s commencement address for graduates in the spring.
Scores of other lawsuits have been filed to overturn the state and New York City vaccine mandates, including by health-care workers who raised similar religious objections over the vaccine.
Gov. Kathy Hochul argued in court that the state is not obligated to provide a religious exemption from the vaccine mandate for health-care workers.
St. John’s — the second largest Catholic University in the country with 20,000 students — has barred students from attending in-person classes without getting vaccinated or being granted an exemption.
The school says 98 percent of its students have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine to date.
The vaccination rate at the 64-campus State University of New York also has reached 98 percent compliance, making the state’s colleges arguably the safest places to be for students in their communities.
St. John’s allows for other vaccine exemptions it deems legitimate.
According to court papers, 564 of its students filed for medical or religious exemptions from the vaccine mandate for the fall semester, and 183 were granted.
But university officials have taken a tough line in court with the plaintiffs in the Suffolk County case.
In an affidavit filed in the case, SJU’s vice president of student affairs, Kathry Hutchinson, said many of the applications were flimsy and didn’t pass the smell test.
“In reviewing the Plaintiffs’ applications, among others, my colleagues and I noticed certain recurring patterns that either invalidated their applications or called into question the sincerity and credibility of the applicants’ claims,” Hutchinson said.
“Numerous applications were denied because the students appeared to have
submitted materials purchased from the Internet, or copied verbatim from online sources, which called into question the genuineness of their purported religious beliefs.”
Hutchinson said some plaintiffs were “particularly brazen in their attempt to abuse the religious exemption process” — including a student who submitted an application that included a form from a minister with the Universal Life Church, a Web site offering “instant online ordination and selling minister clothing and paraphernalia.”
The ULC Web site lists celebrities such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sir Paul McCartney among its “Notable ULC Ministers.”
St. John’s won the initial round, after a judge denied the plaintiffs’ request for an emergency injunction, which means the mandate is still in place. A decision on the merits of the case is spending.
“St. John’s University is confident our COVID-19 vaccination requirement, announced last April, will withstand this legal challenge,” school spokesman Brian Browne told The Post. “Courts have consistently upheld student vaccination requirements as necessary to promote health and safety.”
“At St. John’s, we encourage all students and employees to get vaccinated as a matter of public health and to adhere to our policies. The St. John’s family has come together throughout this ongoing pandemic and adherence to campus safety protocols, and a shared spirit of compliance and cooperation is evident.
“St. John’s will persist in our mutual commitment to campus health to get past this pandemic.”
Asked about St. John’s relationship with a top Pfizer executive D’Amelio, Brown said, “There’s no connection between our vaccine mandate and our alumni network.”