Federal District Court Finds Public University Vaccine Mandate Likely Lawful

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In a closely-watched case that may be a preview of other court decisions involving COVID-vaccination mandates for students returning to school and employees returning to the workplace, a federal district court has denied a request to enjoin Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccine policy for students. The policy includes a requirement that students provide documentation proving that they have been vaccinated – a so-called “vaccine passport.”

A group of eight students had alleged that the public school’s requirement that they be vaccinated, or else qualify for an exemption or take time away from campus in the fall, violated their privacy and body-autonomy rights under the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana disagreed. It found that Indiana University’s rule – which would not have prevented the students from attending classes remotely, deferring their enrollment, or following certain masking and social distancing rules – was made in the legitimate interests of public health.

In denying the students’ request that the court enter an injunction to suspend the policy, the court weighed the efficacy of vaccinations to protect against the spread of COVID-19, as well as the many avenues for seeking exemptions from vaccination the school provided. Indeed, of the eight plaintiffs, seven had or would qualify for some form of exemption. Therefore, the court found, the school’s rules properly balanced between the students’ due process rights under the U.S. Constitution and the school’s own right to protect against threats to its school community.

The students have indicated that they will appeal this ruling, but in the meantime IU’s vaccine mandate remains in effect. The district court’s ruling sends another strong signal that vaccine requirements likely pass legal muster when they include appropriate exemptions for those who must opt out for medical or religious reasons, as well as other practical considerations. Employers, many of whom took note of the recent Texas federal court decision in Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hospital, approving a vaccine mandate by a healthcare employer, should continue to monitor cases and update their policies to ensure appropriate measures for keeping their employees safe upon their return to work this summer or fall.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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