Kansas judge blocks college from failing nursing student who refused COVID-19 vaccine

By: - February 18, 2022 8:30 am

A preliminary injunction preventing Flint Hills Technical College from failing one of its nursing students was issued Feb. 15 by Lyon County District Judge W. Lee Fowler. The student, Molly Ellis, has refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine because of religious beliefs and is suing Kim McNeese, director of the nursing program at FHTC, for religious discrimination. (Margaret Mellott)

EMPORIA — A district judge issued a preliminary injunction Tuesday preventing a technical college from recording failing grades for a nursing student who refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19 on religious grounds.

The student, Molly Ellis, claimed unlawful discrimination in a lawsuit filed Feb. 2 in Lyon County District Court against Flint Hills Technical College and the director of its nursing program. After a three-hour hearing Tuesday, Judge W. Lee Fowler issued the injunction pending a mandatory settlement conference.

Ellis testified she refused the COVID-19 vaccine because of “fetal lining taken from abortions a couple of decades ago.” Following this, Fowler directed attorneys away from questions related to fetal tissue and vaccines.

While fetal cell lines were used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, according to the National Institutes for Health, they are not used in the production of the shots.

“We got relief today,” said Linus Baker, the Johnson County attorney who represented Ellis. “She’s still in the nursing program, so first things first. They had already put the ax to her neck and we stopped it. The judge stopped it.”

In 2017, Baker and his wife, Terri, sued the Kansas Department for Children and Families to prevent it from immunizing their foster grandson, citing religious and health concerns. In 2019, the Bakers sued the Blue Valley school district and state officials over vaccinations.

On Monday, Gov. Laura Kelly directed Kansas agencies to follow state law when complying with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that holds facilities to the federal vaccine mandate if they receive funds under Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services directives. During a special session last November, the Kansas Legislature exempted employees from COVID-19 vaccine requirements by stating a religious reason, without giving specifics of their beliefs.

Ellis was unable to complete her clinicals, required training that provides real-life experience at emergency facilities, because she was assigned to a facility that required the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the lawsuit. Tuesday’s injunction will require the school to list her grades as incomplete until a settlement is reached.

The judge said the settlement conference will happen within 60 days.

FHTC had assigned Ellis to Newman Regional Health in Emporia for her practicum, according to court documents. The hospital requires nursing students to be vaccinated. The college refused to assign her to another facility after she made her religious objection known, according to testimony Tuesday. Newman Regional Health is not a party in the lawsuit.

The director of the nursing program, Kim McNeese, described at length the school’s nursing program and its procedures. Ellis had missed three clinicals, leading to a failing grade.

“No exemptions have been given to” Ellis, McNeese testified.

The college offers an 11-month technical nursing program and is part of the Kansas Board of Regents system. FHTC had an enrollment in 2021 of 562 full-time equivalent students, according to the regents.

Fourteen other students are currently enrolled in the nursing program, McNeese said.

The governor’s directive on Monday, in telling agencies to follow state law, said the sincerity of religious belief among those seeking exemptions shouldn’t be questioned.

“Facilities shall grant an exemption to the federal COVID-19 vaccine requirement if the employee submits a written waiver request stating that complying with the requirement would violate sincerely held religious beliefs of the employee,” the message said. “Religious beliefs include, but is not limited to, theistic and non-theistic moral and ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong that are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Facilities shall not inquire into the sincerity of the request.”

Ellis testified Tuesday that she had emailed McNeese stating her religious objection to the vaccine requirement in late January. She also said she hadn’t had any vaccinations since she was in kindergarten.

“We’ll figure out the rest about how to keep her in the nursing program,” Baker said after the hearing. “And she gets to maintain her fidelity to her religious beliefs. She doesn’t have to exchange that to get a nursing degree, which I think would be the fair outcome in this case.”

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Margaret Mellott
Margaret Mellott

Margaret Mellott is a recent Emporia State University graduate of communication and journalism. During their time at ESU, they spent all four years on the campus paper, The Bulletin. She also spent one year with The Campus Ledger at Johnson County Community College. Outside of collegiate journalism, Mellott has also worked on projects for Vintage KC Magazine and Humanities Kansas.