The University of Indiana’s new policy requiring that all students, faculty, and staff receive mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations before returning for the fall semester does not violate the U.S. Constitution, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
“Under guiding principles of federalism, our Constitution preserves the power of the States, within constitutional limits, to adopt laws to provide for public health and safety,” U.S. District Judge Damon R. Leichty, an appointee of Donald Trump, wrote in a lengthy 101-page decision. “Twice the United States Supreme Court has upheld state authority to compel reasonable vaccinations. The States don’t have arbitrary power, but they have discretion to act reasonably in protecting the public’s health.”
Indeed, the Supreme Court determined more than a century ago that vaccine mandates were permissible, the judge noted.
“To answer the question today, the court travels back in time to 1905: a time before the modern tiers of constitutional analysis (strict scrutiny and rational basis) and one rampaged by the smallpox epidemic,” the ruling notes, citing the case of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. “In that year, the United States Supreme Court issued a leading decision in answer to this question.”
The Supreme Court extended Jacobson’s holding on the constitutional permissibility of vaccine mandates to school districts in the 1922 case of Zucht v. King.
Citing both longstanding precedents, Judge Leichty’s ruling rejects a request from eight students to block the policy from going into effect.
The university’s “restart committee” in May announced that all persons returning to campus must have their first vaccination dose by July 1 “in order to interact with the IU community in any way,” including taking courses, teaching courses, and participating in any school-sanctioned activities. While students and faculty may be exempt from the requirement in limited circumstances, those who refuse vaccination will suffer “strong consequences,” the University said.
As previously reported by Law&Crime, several students filed a lawsuit last month in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana seeking an injunction against the vaccine mandate, alleging that it violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The 55-page suit asserted that the university’s policy “violates the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment,” which “includes rights of personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and the right to reject medical treatment.”
The state’s attorney general also condemned the university’s policy, saying it “unquestionably violates” Indiana’s law against vaccine passport requirements.
“This [vaccine] requirement itself is not a violation of the statute and is legally permissible,” AG Todd Rokita wrote in a memo issued on May 26. “However, the university then further requires the individual to use a COVID-19 self-report form to declare information regarding their immunization, and they then must upload a scan or photo of their vaccine card. These actions are specifically prohibited under Ind. Code § 16-39-11-5(a).”
But according to Leichty, while students have a “significant” constitutional liberty at stake in refusing “unwanted medical treatment based on bodily autonomy,” the university has its own constitutional right to “pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty, and staff.”
“The court isn’t saying a student doesn’t have the right to choose,” he wrote. “Of course every individual does — subject to the state’s reasonable measures designed to pursue legitimate ends of disease control or eradication.”
Judge Leichty also emphasized that there was no constitutional right to a college education and pointed out that the school’s policy was not without exceptions.
“Still [students] have real options—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 or online,” Leichty wrote.
The university praised the court’s decision Monday afternoon.
“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,” a spokesperson for the school said in a statement following the ruling. “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.”
Read the full ruling below.
[image via YouTube screengrab]
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