Yesterday, a federal district court judge from the Northern District of Indiana denied the issuance of a preliminary injunction that would have halted Indiana University’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students. This decision appears to be one of the first rulings upholding a vaccine mandate in the public sector.
In Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, eight Indiana University students sued the Indiana University Board of Trustees after it mandated the COVID-19 vaccine for students and employees, arguing the mandate violated the Fourteenth Amendment and State law. The mandate requires all students, faculty, and staff to be fully vaccinated by the time they return to campus in the fall. Students who fail to comply with the University’s mandate would be barred from campus activities and have their class registrations canceled. The University policy recognizes religious and medical exemptions, subject to additional mitigation measures, such as continued mask-wearing, social distancing, and COVID-19 testing.
At issue before the court was a preliminary injunction to halt the vaccine requirement while the remainder of the case was decided. The students argued that the injunction was necessary because the vaccine mandate violated their right under the Fourteenth Amendment to bodily autonomy, religious freedom, and ability to choose (or refuse) medical treatment. Further, the students claimed that the University’s requirement of continued mask-wearing, COVID-19 testing, and social distancing for unvaccinated or exempt individuals infringed upon their religious freedom by requiring additional measures for certain students based on their religious beliefs. Ultimately, the students argued that the University’s vaccine requirement was an ultimatum that required them to choose between receiving the vaccine and continuing their collegiate education. In contrast, the University argued that its vaccine mandate was promulgated to safeguard University students and employees in the wake of a public health crisis.
In a 101-page opinion, the Judge sided with the University, finding that the students failed to show that they would suffer irreparable harm due to the University’s vaccine mandate, and further finding that the University acted reasonably in the interest of public health. In his analysis, the Judge reasoned that it was not at all uncommon for institutions of higher education to require immunizations, noting that Indiana state law requires all public university students to receive several vaccinations, including tetanus and diphtheria, among others. Additionally, the Judge was not convinced by the students’ Fourteenth Amendment claim, finding that the Fourteenth Amendment allowed the University to take reasonable measures—including, notably, mandatory vaccinations—to protect a legitimate public health interest. The Judge emphasized that students have the right to choose whether to receive the vaccine, as does any individual, but that choice is subject to a State’s “reasonable measures designed to pursue legitimate ends of disease control or eradication.”
Further, the Judge reasoned that there is no constitutional right to a collegiate education. While students who refuse the vaccine may certainly be deprived of attendance at Indiana University, the Judge noted that the University’s policy provided them several alternative options: students can obtain the vaccine, but beyond that option, they can apply for religious or medical exemptions, apply for medical deferrals, take a semester off, attend another university or attend this university online. Therefore, while difficult, the Judge noted that the students did, in fact, have choices, none of which amounted to coercion.
The Judge emphasized that this decision was issued in the context of a request for a preliminary injunction, and that the court has not yet considered on the merits the constitutionality of a public institution of higher education’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Additionally, the students have indicated their plans to appeal the decision regarding the preliminary injunction prior to the start of the fall semester. We will continue to follow this case as it develops and bring you additional updates.