FORT WAYNE, Ind. (CN) — A federal judge on Monday upheld Indiana University’s requirement for all staff and students to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before returning to campus.
The vaccine mandate applies to all students, faculty and staff, but does allow for religious, ethical and medical exemptions. It has remained in place while the Bloomington-based school has loosened other Covid-19 restrictions, such as social distancing and mandatory mask wearing, for the upcoming fall semester.
The university’s rule sparked immediate backlash after it was announced in May, including from the state’s Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita, who released a nonbinding opinion against the policy that said IU may not ask students for proof of vaccination.
Soon after, IU revised its policy and now allows students to fill out a form to certify they are fully vaccinated instead of requiring proof of vaccination. The school also made masks optional for fully vaccinated people.
The vaccine mandate drew a legal challenge from a group of eight students, who filed a federal lawsuit in June claiming the rule is unnecessary and violates their civil rights – specifically, their rights to "personal autonomy and bodily integrity" under the 14th Amendment. Of the eight students who don't want to get vaccinated, six of them have already received an exemption from the requirement.
“As the [coronavirus infection] numbers continue to decline, such draconian measures as requiring all students to be vaccinated is not reasonable,” the lawsuit states.
But in a 101-page ruling Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Damon Leichty found the mandate served a legitimate public health purpose and denied the students' request for a preliminary injunction against the rule.
“Recognizing the students’ significant liberty to refuse unwanted medical treatment, 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," wrote Leichty, a Donald Trump appointee.
The Terre Haute-based Bopp Law Firm, which represented the students in the lawsuit, said in a statement that it disagrees with the court's decision and will take its challenge to IU’s vaccination policy to the appeals court.
“Today’s ruling does not end the students’ fight—we plan to immediately appeal the judge’s decision,” said James Bopp, Jr., lead counsel in the lawsuit and director of litigation for the right-wing group America’s Frontline Doctors. “In addition, we plan on asking the judge to put a hold on IU’s mandate pending that appeal. We are confident the court of appeals will agree that the mandate should be put on hold.”
In spelling out his reasoning, Leichty pointed out that the state has a longstanding requirement that university students get vaccinated for a range of diseases.
“Indiana requires all public university students to be vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and meningococcal disease before attending school,” Leichty wrote. “All but one of these vaccinations have been required since 1993.”
The judge also said he did not consider the university policy to be forced vaccination because the school is offering options to students. Those options include simply getting vaccinated, applying for an exemption, taking a semester off, or attending another university.
“The court recognizes that for certain students this may prove a difficult choice, but a choice nonetheless. The choice isn’t so coercive as to constitute irreparable constitutional harm. Although it proves a condition to attend this fall, it is reasonable under the Constitution,” Leichty wrote.
IU released a statement in support of the ruling and its vaccine policy.
“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," it said. "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.”
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