On July 18, 2021, Judge Damon R. Leichty upheld Indiana University’s (the “University”) mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy in Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, a case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana.
In May 2021, the University announced a policy requiring faculty, staff, and students to get COVID-19 vaccines before returning to campus for the Fall 2021 semester. If not vaccinated, students would not be permitted to return to campus, and faculty and staff could face termination of their employment. The policy also contained exemptions, including for religious and medical reasons. If exempt, individuals would be subject to additional safety requirements, including “participat[ing] in more frequent mitigation testing, quarantin[ing] if exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, wear[ing] a mask in public spaces, and return[ing] to their permanent address or quarantine[ing] if there is a serious outbreak of COVID-19.”
A group of eight college and graduate students sued the University, challenging its mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy and the extra requirements imposed on those who received an exemption. The group asked the court to enter a preliminary injunction preventing the University from implementing its policy, arguing, among other reasons, that requiring the vaccine violated their right to bodily integrity and autonomy; the policy violated their constitutional right to due process and free exercise of religion; and the COVID-19 vaccine only had emergency use authorization (EUA) from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and thus should not be considered part of the normal vaccinations schools can require.
In a one-hundred-page decision, Judge Leichty denied the students’ motion for preliminary injunction. Judge Leichty noted that “more than 500 colleges and universities have mandated vaccination, though many are private institutions of higher learning, not public universities.” While Judge Leichty recognized the students’ “significant liberty to refuse unwanted medical treatment,” he noted that the Fourteenth Amendment permitted the University to “pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty, and staff.” Judge Leichty carefully considered the appropriate standard of review in the case. He ultimately decided that, during a public health crisis, rational basis review is the appropriate standard of review; he found that the interest in bodily autonomy, “though protected by the Constitution, wasn’t fundamental under the Constitution to require greater scrutiny than rational basis review.” Further, Judge Leichty found that the students had not “established a likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourteenth Amendment claim for the many requirements that must precede the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction.”
The students also argued that the vaccination requirement violated their free exercise of religion. Judge Leichty found that the “vaccine mandate [was] a neutral rule of general applicability,” as it applied to all students, regardless of whether the students are religious. The Judge noted that “the university has chosen to enable the practice of religion by providing a religious exemption to this vaccination requirement” (emphasis in original) and the fact that the University freely granted this exemption to students if requested, no questions asked, was consistent with the Constitution. Thus, while the free exercise of religion is a fundamental right, because the University’s vaccine mandate is a neutral rule of general applicability, it required only a rational basis standard of review. The students further argued that mask-wearing and COVID-19 testing violated their religion; the Judge again held that the University’s extra requirements were neutral requirements, as students who received a religious exemption would be subject to the same extra requirements as those students who received a medical exemption.
Judge Leichty also noted that the fact that the COVID-19 vaccine was approved under an EUA was not necessarily a barrier to the imposition of a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, stating that the FDA imposed more stringent standards for the COVID-19 vaccine, “invit[ing] EUA applications only for vaccines positioned well to receive full approval.” In addition, Judge Leichty noted that FDA regulations prohibiting a mandatory use of an EUA applied to medical personnel administering the vaccine, not to an educational institution requiring the vaccine. In fact, the students admitted that “the informed consent requirement under the EUA statute only applies to medical providers.” The Judge noted that the University was not directly administering the vaccine to students, nor was the University forcing students to “undergo injections.”
Judge Leichty emphasized that the University was not forcing vaccination, as students and staff had the option of whether to get vaccinated, apply for an exemption, or find a new school to attend or work for. Further, students could choose to take the semester off or attend classes remotely. Judge Leichty determined that while “this may prove a difficult choice,” the “choice isn’t so coercive as to constitute irreparable constitutional harm,” finding that the Constitution guaranteed no specific right or liberty to a collegiate education.
As Judge Leichty was careful to point out, this case considered the question whether the University acted constitutionally in mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for its students, "only in the context of a preliminary injunction motion, not for a final decision on the merits.” Nevertheless, this case is instructive for higher education institutions that have mandated vaccination and those that are considering doing so.
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