By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
In what appears to be the first but undoubtedly will not be the last legal ruling on COVID-19 vaccine requirements, U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Indiana Damon R. Leichty ruled on Sunday that Indiana University may mandate students submit proof of vaccination before returning to campus this autumn.
Eight undergraduate and graduate students had sought to block the university’s requirement, alleging that it unconstitutionally infringed on their bodily integrity and autonomy, as well as their medical privacy.
According to the New York Times, A federal judge upholds Indiana University’s vaccination requirement for students:
… [Judge Leichty] said that while he recognized the students’ interest in refusing unwarranted medical treatment, such a right must be weighed against the state’s greater interest.
“The Fourteenth Amendment permits Indiana University to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty and staff,” his ruling said, also noting that the university had made exceptions for students who object.
Leichty outlined noted several options other than vaccination open to students, according to the BBC US judge upholds Indiana University vaccine requirement. These include:
applying for medical deferrals, taking a semester off or attending another school. Religious and ethical exemptions are also available for students to request on the university’s website
Leichty was appointed to the federal bench by former president Donald Trump. The decision is the first that addresses the constitutionality of COVID-19 vaccination mandates at public universities. Similar cases are pending against the California State University system and the University of Connecticut.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Indiana University Can Require Covid-19 Vaccines, Federal Judge Says:
Hundreds of private and public colleges and universities have adopted vaccine policies like Indiana University’s—in schools mostly clustered on the East and West coasts. Antivaccine activists have focused on public institutions, which are bound by constitutional restraints as government entities, and have brought lawsuits under the 14th Amendment and its protection of fundamental liberties.
Unsurprisingly, a university spokesperson applauded the judge’s ruling.
Yet this decision is far from the last word on the issue. Per the WSJ:
An attorney representing the students, conservative activist James Bopp Jr., said he would appeal. “We think the court made a fundamental error,” he said.
Federal courts have consistently upheld vaccination requirements at K-12 schools and workplaces, according to James G. Hodge, a professor of public health law at Arizona State University.
Opponents of the university requirements say they deserve more scrutiny from the courts. They contend the risks of requiring Covid-19 vaccines—which the Food and Drug Administration authorized for emergency use under a speedier-than-normal safety review—outweigh the public health benefits.
They say the number of serious Covid-19 cases among college and graduate students is too low to justify risks of the vaccine, including a potential link between Pfizer -BioNTech and Moderna’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and an inflammatory heart condition known as myocarditis.
Bopp noted that as coronavirus vaccines have only emergency use authorization, they thus should not be considered as part of the normal range of vaccinations that schools require, according to the NYT. Courts have generally upheld such general vaccine requirements. Bopp said he will take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. Per the NYT:
“What we have here is the government forcing you to do something that you strenuously object to and have your body invaded in the process,” said the lawyer, James Bopp Jr.
He said that the appeal would be paid for by America’s Frontline Doctors, a conservative organization that has been pursuing an anti-vaccine agenda. Mr. Bopp, of Terre Haute, Ind., is known for his legal advocacy promoting conservative causes.
Mr. Bopp filed the lawsuit in June, after Indiana University announced the previous month that faculty, staff and students would be required to get coronavirus vaccinations before coming to school this fall.
Fuzzily Drawn Exemptions Make Requirements Less than Iron Clad
Most of these vaccine mandates contain religious exemptions, as well as other wiggle room. The question arises: How to determine whether the claimed exemptions are legitimate? The answer: as the exemptions are usually rather fuzzily drawn, and even more loosely administered and interpreted, meaning in practice, an exemption can usually be had for the asking.
Now, in the past, sometimes, states step in and trump these religious waivers – as happened in New York IIRC with religious exemptions for measles vaccines when the state faced serious outbreaks before the coronavirus pandemic began.
I also note that the Indiana requirement, according to Judge Leichty, also includes an ethical exemption. I suppose that has also been crafted to more or less provide a vaccine out to any student who might ask to be exempted. without needing to cite religious scruples.