Federal judge upholds IU vaccination mandate

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In an exhaustive 101-page decision, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana is allowing Indiana University’s requirement that students must be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to additional requirements in order to return to classes in the fall, finding the 14th Amendment permits the school “to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health.”

The ruling in Ryan Klaassen et al. v. The Trustees of Indiana University, 1:21-cv-00238, was issued Sunday and came less than a week after attorneys presented their arguments along with more than 100 exhibits and testimony from many individuals including experts who referred to innumerable studies and articles.

Judge Damon Leichty was careful to point out his decision was limited to the preliminary record that was produced on the parties on an emergent timetable. Also, he noted, the ruling was not giving Indiana University permission to institute whatever measures it wanted in response to coronavirus pandemic; however, based on the evidence, Leichty determined IU’s mandate was reasonable.

“This university policy isn’t forced vaccination,” Leichty wrote. “The students have option – 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 choice isn’t so coercive as to constitute irreparable constitutional harm.”

The lawsuit was brought by eight individuals who are either students or will be students at Indiana University and who claimed the requirement violated their constitutional rights.

Among the plaintiffs is Ashlee Morris, 26, an incoming first-year student at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. According to the ruling, she was granted a religious exemption from the university’s vaccination requirement but she has told the court she will not attend if she must wear a mask and be regularly tested for COVID-19.

James Bopp, Jr., of The Bopp Law Firm which is representing the students, said in a statement the plaintiffs plan to appeal the ruling.

“Continuing or fight against this unconstitutional mandate is necessary to guarantee that IU students receive the fair due process they’re owed by a public university,” Bobb said. “An admitted IU student’s right to attend IU cannot be conditioned on the student waiving their rights to bodily integrity, bodily autonomy, and consent to medical treatment like IU has done here.”

Indiana University hailed the decision and said it is moving forward with plans for safe in-person instructions this fall.

“A ruling from the federal court has affirmed Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccination plan designed for the health and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. We appreciate the quick and thorough ruling which allows us to focus on a full and safe return.  We look forward to welcoming everyone to our campuses for the fall semester.”

Leichty offered an overview recap of the COVID-19 pandemic’s toll, including more than 600,000 deaths and gave a thorough review of the federal government’s process for approving vaccines. He referred multiple times to the testimony of medical experts to counter the plaintiffs’ claims and swatted away the plaintiff’s argument that the university’s vaccine mandate does not provide for informed consent.

“The university isn’t forcing students to undergo injections. The situation here is a far cry from past blunders in medical ethics like the Tuskegee Study,” he wrote, referring to the study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 to observe untreated syphilis without the consent of the participants.

The plaintiffs claimed the mandate infringes on their bodily autonomy and medical privacy. Again, Leichty turned to science, highlighting the findings that show low risk of adverse reactions from the vaccines and pointing out their contention the “pandemic is basically over” goes against the current proclamation from public health and government officials. In addition, he highlighted that the fall in COVID-19 cases from the winter is because of the vaccinations and the school has put the policy in place to protect its community of students, faculty and staff.

“Today, Indiana University has a rational basis to conclude that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and efficacious for its students,” Leichty wrote. “…Much like over 500 universities and college in the United States that have done the same, Indiana university reasonably relies on the vaccine as a measure to return to normal school functioning.”

The plaintiffs also asserted the requirements that they wear a mask, get tested regularly and practicing social distancing if they do not get vaccinated placed a burden on them.

Morris said she has a religious objection to wearing a mask and being tested. However, she told the court she has been tested previously and did not suffer any lasting harm from the procedure. Also, she has worn a mask to work, on a plane and when she went to a casino but did not wear one in stores even if signs were posted asking customers to do so.

Leichty held the university’s policy vaccine policy fit with the ruling in Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872, 879 (1992) which found that right of free exercise of religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law. The IU students who receive the religious exemption are subject to the same extra requirements as those who receive the medical exemption.

“On this record, the court finds no merit to the students’ contention that wearing masks essentially labels them with a ‘scarlet letter’ that targets them for religious bully,” Leichty wrote. “Indiana University has both medical and religious exemptions, and the same requirements are imposed on both groups. There is no evidence that any exempted person must reveal publicly which exemption they obtained. Wearing masts thus doesn’t signify to others that the individual religiously objects to the vaccination… .”

He noted the policy is in place to protect IU’s larger community of students, faculty and staff.

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