UConn water tower
A water tower on UConn’s Storrs campus Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

A lawyer for University of Connecticut students opposed to the school’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement asked a federal court judge Thursday to step in with an emergency order barring the university from enforcing the rule. 

U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey Meyer heard arguments with less than three weeks before UConn’s fall semester was set to begin and as Connecticut’s COVID infection rates remained elevated amidst spread of the more-infectious delta variant. 

The lawsuit comes from three students or their families who say the requirement that they be vaccinated or seek an exemption violates their rights. However, lawyers for the state have challenged their standing, based in part on the fact that two of the three students had been granted exemptions and the other hadn’t even applied for one. 

At times during the morning hearing, the judge seemed skeptical of the students’ complaint, given that the university had granted exceptions to most of the students who had applied. As of July, 504 of 771 requests for non-medical exemptions had been granted.

“The president of UConn is not grabbing any students by the arm and jabbing them with a vaccine, right?” Meyer said. “UConn is simply saying if you wish to be a residential member of this community as a student, there’s a vaccination requirement or apply for an exemption.”

However, Ryan McLane, the lawyer for the students and families, said the qualifications to receive an exemption were never adequately defined and the vaccination requirement was arbitrary because it applied to students but not the university’s faculty and staff. 

“They took it upon themselves to craft a policy that infringes on these students’ fundamental rights to refuse unwanted medical treatment without requiring the same of their faculty and staff,” McLane said. “Intertwining those two, while enforcing the rule against students that don’t want to get vaccinated, is completely arbitrary.”

Mary Lenehan, an assistant attorney general, said the two policies weren’t the same. The university had not ruled out a staff mandate but had collective bargaining constraints to navigate, she said. Meanwhile, staff were not generally living on campus, eating at dining halls or using the gyms. 

Lenehan said students were still able to refuse unwanted medical treatment if they saw fit. 

“Either show proof of vaccination, or apply for an exemption, or there is the choice not to attend the university,” she said. “No one is forcing any student to be vaccinated.” 

According to a spokesperson for UConn, 97% of the 11,000 students expected to live on the Storrs campus this year were already in compliance, either by demonstrating proof they had taken the shot or obtaining an exemption. About 3% of those in compliance had opted for exemptions. 

During the hearing, McLane also pointed to testimony submitted by a witness, Dr. Peter McCullough, who questioned the efficacy of the vaccines. In court documents this week, the state sought to have McCullough’s affidavit excluded, saying it contained false statements about his qualification and ran counter to scientific consensus. 

Meyer asked McLane if the lawyer was arguing that the vaccines don’t work. 

“You’re asking me to make a finding that they don’t work effectively?” Meyer said.

“Based on what my expert is saying, yes –” McLane said.

“So I should accept Doctor McCullough’s testimony on that over that of the [Centers for Disease Control]?” Meyer asked. 

McLane hesitated then continued. 

“Well, if you don’t want to take it as fact — I would like to. I have taken it, that’s why I offered it in evidence — but if you don’t want to necessarily take it as the fact, it should be taken at least for the weight stating that we don’t have common knowledge enough to make these determinations.” McLane said.

Lenehan argued that the question before the court was not whether every scientist agreed with the CDC, but whether UConn had a rational basis for wanting its students to be vaccinated for the coronavirus. 

“Given the global emergency — and emergency doesn’t even seem sufficient to describe the situation that’s going on — it has been determined by numerous world health organizations: the CDC, all kinds of state and local authorities that the vaccine is the most effective way to quell this pandemic and save millions of lives,” she said. 

The judge said he planned to rule quickly in the case as the fall semester is set to begin.

In a related case Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to issue an emergency order to halt a similar vaccine requirement instituted by Indiana University, according to NBC News.