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Demonstrators gather to protest BYU event vaccination policy

By Harrison Epstein - Daily Herald | Jan 23, 2022

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Protestors chant and hold signs Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, during a demonstration against BYU's policy requiring vaccination or a recent COVID-19 negative test to attend large events on campus. The protest was held just off campus at the intersection of 900 East and Birch Lane.

With wording that varied, most protestors who assembled Saturday had a shared message in favor of individual liberties.

A protest was held in opposition to Brigham Young University’s decision, announced Jan. 10, to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for attendance of indoor public events including conferences, athletics and performing arts events.

Dozens gathered at the intersection of 900 East and Birch Lane holding signs with a variety of messages, all pointed against the COVID-19 vaccine.

Holding a megaphone, Vaughn Hokanson told the crowd repeatedly that they were not anti-vaccination, but pro-freedom. “It’s to send a message to BYU that we don’t believe that the mandate for a vaccine passport at sporting events is constitutional,” he said.

Hokanson, a Heber City resident, estimated that about 25% of the crowd was BYU students. One protestor came from St. George in support of her niece who is a student at the university.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

BYU student Emily Anderson waves an American flag Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, during a protest against BYU's policy requiring vaccination or a recent COVID-19 negative test to attend large events on campus. The protest was held just off campus at the intersection of 900 East and Birch Lane.

Raul Hevia, one of the protest’s organizers, said they decided to come out after hearing the story of a BYU athlete’s parents who, due to their vaccination status, would not be able to see their child compete.

Married students Thomas and Sariah Stevenson also felt it was necessary to speak out. The couple are juniors at BYU, and both are vaccinated.

“I think that the vaccine was a miracle, but I just want people to have the liberty to choose whether or not to take it and also be aware of the side-effects that could happen — there’s a minute chance that they do,” Thomas Stevenson said. “I know BYU has the right to do it, but I just disagree with it.”

Sariah added, “We’re just for the freedom of people to choose what they want to do with their life and their personal decisions.”

Throughout the mid-day demonstration, drivers passing by would honk in support of the demonstrators’ message — with one protestor commenting happily about the ratio of supportive honks versus middle fingers.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Protestors chant and hold signs Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, during a demonstration against BYU's policy requiring vaccination or a recent COVID-19 negative test to attend large events on campus. The protest was held just off campus at the intersection of 900 East and Birch Lane.

A few of those in attendance were supporters of Jason Preston, candidate for Utah’s 3rd Congressional District seat currently held by Rep. John Curtis, gathering signatures for Preston to be on the ballot.

Several others were carrying signs with verses from the Bible and the Book of Mormon, one of which being Helaman 13:14, which reads, “But behold, it is for the righteous’ sake that it is spared. But behold, the time cometh, saith the Lord, that when ye shall cast out the righteous from among you, then shall ye be ripe for destruction; yea, wo be unto this great city, because of the wickedness and abominations which are in her.”

Another talking point for protestors revolved around the Civil Rights Act, namely that the vaccination requirement to attend public event violated Title 3, Regulation 8 CFR § 36.104.

“A private business or entity, like BYU is, that receives federal tax dollars can not discriminate based on religion, sex, medical condition, race or origin. This is part of the law and they are violating the law right now,” Hevia said. He added he believed the policy violates the law as discrimination for medical and religious reasons.

The First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though, has urged members to get vaccinated. The urging is also the basis for BYU’s wider policies regarding COVID-19.

Harrison Epstein, Daily Herald

Protestors chant and hold signs Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022, during a demonstration against BYU's policy requiring vaccination or a recent COVID-19 negative test to attend large events on campus. The protest was held just off campus at the intersection of 900 East and Birch Lane.

“BYU continues to urge the greater campus community to follow counsel from the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to get vaccinated and wear masks in public gatherings whenever social distancing is not possible,” BYU spokesperson Todd Hollingshead said in an email to the Daily Herald.

The protest was planned through People’s Rights, an anti-government group founded by Ammon Bundy which started in Idaho in response to COVID-related public health decisions made in 2020.

Bundy became widely known for a series of armed standoffs with government officials, in Nevada in 2014 and Oregon in 2016. He is also a candidate for governor in Idaho.

He and his father, Cliven Bundy, have both spoken in Utah County in recent years, Cliven at the Independent American State Party Convention in 2018 and Ammon at the 2020 “Rally for Liberty” in Orem against mask and vaccine mandates.

On its website, People’s Rights gives readers a list of rights, as opposed to privileges, including the right to life –“Believe it or not, because you are human, you have a right to live” — the right to travel and move — “As explicitly penned in the U.S. Constitution, you have a right to travel, and no one should stop you” — and more.

Their site also includes a “newsroom,” which provides readers a series of posts regarding the selected state, among them a Wednesday post informing visitors of the protest at BYU.

The post links to the World Wide Demonstration website, saying the BYU rally is one of many around the world. World Wide Demonstration on its own site boasts the use of Telegram groups across the globe; the two nearest Utah are in Denver and Sedona, Arizona.

Telegram is an encrypted messaging app frequently used by right-wing organizations to share information and rally support for causes.

In its Call to Action sending supporters to the gathering, People’s Rights wrote, “It makes zero moral sense. It violates the Fourth Amendment. It makes zero logical sense. Everyone has the opportunity to get the bio-weapon or wear a mask if they wish. If those things work, why the need to push it upon everyone? Even the CDC admits now that the bioweapon does not stop transmission and the reason to get it is to lesson symptoms FOR THE INDIVIDUAL, so it has nothing to do with helping another.”

The argument that BYU’s new events policy violates the Fourth Amendment was disputed by Justin Collings, professor of law and associate dean at BYU Law School.

In an email, Collings wrote, “The quick answer is that the Fourth Amendment restricts government actors, not private entities like BYU, which are largely free to impose whatever restrictions they please on those attending the events they host. What’s more, even a governmental vaccine mandate is likely constitutional under prevailing Supreme Court doctrine (see the Jacobson case coming out of Massachusetts in 1905). In any event, there is no plausible argument that BYU is violating the Fourth Amendment by requiring certification of vaccination or a negative Covid test for attendance at large gatherings on campus.”

The policy is in place, “until further notice,” according to Hollingshead.

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