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Indiana University's Vaccine Requirement Should Stand, Federal Judge Rules

People gather last month on Indiana University's Bloomington campus to protest the college's vaccine requirement. A group of students sued the school, claiming the policy violated their rights.
People gather last month on Indiana University's Bloomington campus to protest the college's vaccine requirement. A group of students sued the school, claiming the policy violated their rights.

A federal judge has blocked a challenge to Indiana University's requirement that students get vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to campus this fall. Indiana University is one of hundreds of colleges mandating COVID-19 vaccinations this year.

According to university policy, students and staff must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they qualify for a medical, religious or ethical exemption, or unless a student is attending a fully online program. Students who qualify for an exemption will need to take extra-precautionary measures on campus by wearing masks, taking additional coronavirus tests and either heading home or quarantining in the case of an outbreak.

Students who refuse the vaccine and don't qualify for an exemption can have their classes canceled and access to online university systems revoked.

Eight students sued the school in June, asking for a preliminary injunction to halt the university's policy. In the complaint, they argued the rules trample on their rights under the 14th Amendment, "which includes rights of personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and the right to reject medical treatment."

The students, represented by the Bopp Law Firm in Terre Haute, Ind., had a range of reasons for opposing the mandate, including the relatively low risk of developing serious symptoms based on their age and the unknown long-term effects of the vaccine. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said serious side effects "are extremely unlikely.")

In their complaint, the students compared the vaccination policy to the Tuskegee syphilis study, one of the most infamous abuses of medical ethics in U.S. history. They argued the university's mandate stood in opposition to modern medical ethics.

This week, the court denied the motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have halted the vaccine requirement as the case worked its way through the courts. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty wrote, "The situation here is a far cry from past blunders in medical ethics like the Tuskegee Study."

It's important to understand, he said, 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). Since the policy only applies to the fall 2021 semester, students can also choose to take the semester off or attend all remote classes.

In the complaint, multiple students said they have religious reasons for opposing masks, which they'd need to wear if they qualified for an exemption from the vaccine requirement.

In response, Leichty wrote that while the right to exercise religion is fundamental, the university's vaccine mandate applies the same way to all students: "One may well applaud the university for going beyond what the constitution requires: courts have consistently held that schools that provided a religious exemption from mandatory vaccination requirements did so above and beyond that mandated by the Constitution."

In a statement to NPR, Indiana University spokesman Chuck Carney 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."

In an email, James Bopp Jr., one of the attorneys representing the students, told NPR, "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."

Bopp said the students plan to appeal the judge's decision.

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