Court Upholds Indiana University’s Vaccine Mandate
- A federal judge ruled Indiana University may require COVID-19 vaccinations for students.
- The decision is the first to affirm the constitutionality of the widespread college mandate.
- Students in the lawsuit filed an appeal, saying the mandate has not been scrutinized.
In the first court decision on the constitutionality of colleges' COVID-19 vaccine mandates, Judge Damon Leichty of the U.S. District Court for Northern Indiana ruled that Indiana University may require the vaccines.
The outcome bolsters the decision of hundreds of U.S. colleges to require that on-campus students get the vaccine before the fall. The ruling does not speak directly to the legality of mandating emergency-use vaccines.
Whether colleges choose to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their students is strongly tied to whether a school is located in a Republican-led or Democratic-led state. Universities within the same state have also adopted varying stances. While Indiana University (IU) will mandate the vaccines, other colleges in the right-leaning state, including Purdue University, will not.
Students' Suit Fails to Block Mandate
The eight students who brought the lawsuit against IU claim the vaccine requirement violates their Fourteenth Amendment right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity and the right to reject medical treatment.
They argue students face low risk of contracting COVID-19 due to age and the unknown long-term side effects of the vaccines. The students also allege the mandate violates Indiana's new law banning "vaccine passports." In response to the state ban, IU said it will incentivize rather than require students to report vaccination status.
The students' lawsuit compared IU's vaccination policy to the Tuskegee syphilis study, but Judge Leichty disagreed with the comparison and denied the request. "This university policy isn't forced vaccination," he wrote. "The students have options — taking the vaccine, applying for a religious exemption, applying for a medical exemption, applying for a medical deferral, taking a semester off, or attending another university."
The judge ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment permits IU to require vaccination in the interest of public health. While Leichty expressed personal misgivings that the mandate cuts into individual freedom and self-determination, he pointed out that IU's religious exemptions go "above and beyond that mandated by the Constitution."
The plaintiffs will take their challenge to IU's mandate to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. They are looking for injunctions against the university's policy while the case proceeds. Attorneys for the students say the "students have shown that the balance of harms tips in their favor," and IU must be required to justify the mandate under a "heightened level of scrutiny."
Testing Requirements for Unvaccinated Students
While Indiana's Purdue University broke ranks with elite colleges in not mandating COVID-19 vaccines this fall, it will require unvaccinated students to undergo regular testing. The same is true for vaccine-exempt students at Indiana University.
Most states and, therefore, most colleges allow vaccine exemptions for a host of reasons — medical, religious, and personal beliefs. While colleges have not yet publicly announced implementation plans, most say that students who have not met the COVID-19 vaccine requirement must get regularly tested.
In the Indiana University case, several students pointed to religious objections to the additional testing and masking requirements they would be subject to as a consequence of their unvaccinated status.
Feature Image: Michael Hickey / Contributor / Getty Images Sport