Indiana University’s Vaccination Policy Decision Appealed
Jul 21, 2021
As expected, eight Indiana University’s (“University”) students, on July 20, 2021, appealed a federal district court judge’s July 18, 2021 decision upholding, at least preliminary, the University’s COVID-19 vaccination policy. Ryan Klaassen et. al., v. The Trustees of Indiana University. The University’s vaccination policy, scheduled to go into effect at the beginning of its Fall semester, requires all students and employees show proof of being vaccinated for COVID-19.
The students sued the University claiming its vaccination policy violated their constitutional rights and requested an injunction be issued preventing the University’s enforcement of its policy. The University’s vaccination policy, announced in the Spring of 2021, requires all students, faculty and staff returning to campus for the Fall 2021 semester be vaccinated against COVID-19 absent certain exemptions. Exemptions may be available for individuals based upon medical, religious, or ethical reasons or for those students attending a University online only program. The students claimed, among other things, that the policy violated their Fourteenth Amendment rights to personal and bodily autonomy and their right to refuse medical treatment. Students also claimed the policy violated their First Amendment right to free exercise of their religion.
District Court Judge Damon Leichty rejected the students’ offensive comparison of the University’s vaccination policy to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments on black men between 1933 and 1976. Judge Leichty stated, “It is important to understand that the University isn’t forcing anyone to get a vaccine. It’s offering students and staff options: They can either get the vaccine, apply for an exemption or find a new school to attend (or, in the case of staff, a new job).” The Court also noted that at present the vaccination policy only applies to the University’s Fall 2021 semester.
Judge Leichty acknowledged the students’ significant right under the United States Constitution to refuse unwanted medical treatment. However, the Constitution “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.” Rejecting the students’ religious discrimination claim, the Court stated the right to exercise one religion does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid or neutral law of general applicability. Additionally, the Court found no merit to the students’ claim that wearing masks essentially labels them with a scarlet letter that targets them for religious bullying.
The Court also addressed the claim that the University’s policy does not provide informed consent as required under the Emergency Use Authorization (“EUA”) of vaccine guidance from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The Court stated that the informed consent requirement under the EUA statute only applies to medical providers. “The University is not directly administering the vaccine to its students instead it is requiring students to obtain the vaccine from a medical provider and to attest that they have been vaccinated, save for certain exemptions.”
We will continue to monitor this case as it makes its way through the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The Seventh Circuit may issue a decision legally binding, not only on Indiana, but also Illinois and Wisconsin.