Pullman & Comley - School Law

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, many colleges have turned to mandatory student vaccination requirements in an attempt to return to in-person learning.  Predictably, following directly behind those mandatory policies are the lawsuits filed by students claiming that these policies violate their rights.  In what is believed to be the first federal court decision on the matter, the Federal District Court of Indiana denied the request by several students to enjoin Indiana University from implementing its mandatory vaccination policy.  Interestingly, the majority of the eight students had already received religious exemptions from the mandatory vaccination requirements but the students also challenged the portions of the policy that required unvaccinated students to wear masks, undergo surveillance testing and quarantine if exposed to the virus.  The federal court denied the students’ request for a preliminary injunction, thus allowing the policy to remain in place for the start of the school year. 

For the 2021-2022 school year, the University passed a mandatory vaccine policy.  If not vaccinated or exempt, students are not permitted on campus, their emails and University accounts are suspended and their access cards are deactivated.  Faculty and staff who refuse vaccination face termination.  The policy includes religious and medical exemptions and does not apply to students who are only enrolled in an on-line program.  Students who have a vaccine exemption must wear a mask in public spaces, must participate in frequent surveillance testing, must quarantine if they have contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 and must leave school or quarantine if there is a serious outbreak.  Eight students filed a lawsuit and requested that the court issue a preliminary injunction preventing the University from implementing the policy.  The students claimed, in large part, that the policy violated their substantive rights to liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In a wrinkle that does not apply in Connecticut, the Indiana legislature passed a law prohibiting vaccine passports in the state.  The law, however, does not contain any prohibition on vaccination mandates, just vaccine passports.

In deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction, one of the main factors the court will consider is whether the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim.  The court, in a decision that was approximately 100 pages long, ultimately found that the plaintiffs were not likely to succeed on the merits of their claim and thus denied their request for a preliminary injunction, effectively allowing the University to implement the policy.

First, the court found that the policy should be reviewed under rational basis review rather than the more stringent strict scrutiny review.  The court then identifies the “liberty” interest at stake as the right to refuse a vaccine “today at this stage of the pandemic.”

The court soundly rejected each of the students’ arguments against the policy. As to the students’ argument that the vaccine mandate amounted to a denial of informed consent, the court noted that the informed consent requirements under the Emergency Use Authorization for vaccines that were referenced by the students apply only to medical providers, not to educational institutions.  The court noted that this is not a situation where the University is forcing students to be vaccinated.  Rather, the University is presenting the students a choice, albeit a difficult one, of getting the vaccine, applying for an exemption or getting educated elsewhere.  Insightfully, the court recognized that such a choice, while difficult, does not amount to coercion, as was argued by the students. 

The court also rejected the students’ argument that the policy violated their right to religious freedom.  The court found that the University’s inclusion of a religious exemption was consistent with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, and in fact suggested that it actually went above and beyond what the University was required to do. 

In finding that the students were unlikely to win on the merits of their claim, the court found that the University reasonably believes that the vaccines promote the safety not only of its students, but of its entire community.  The court rejected a variety of arguments posited by the students, including that COVID-19 causes much less serious illness and death to college-age students so there is no need for the mandate, that the risks of the vaccine outweigh its benefits, and their claim that there is little evidence of asymptomatic transmission among college students.  The court also rejected the students’ argument that the COVID-19 vaccines were experimental and, therefore, should not be made mandatory, detailing the extensive process used to approve the COVID-19 vaccines to date.  The court found that “Indiana University has a rational basis to conclude that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and efficacious for its students.  The vaccine has been used on about 157 million Americans; and data now about eight months later … is considerable and shows major side effects are rare.” 

The court was equally quick to dismiss the exempted student-plaintiffs’ arguments that the additional measures of mask wearing, testing and social distancing infringe on their bodily autonomy, medical privacy, religious beliefs, and that it brands them with a “scarlet letter” that would target them for bullying and scorn from their peers.  The court emphatically stated that it “declines the students’ invitation to expand substantive due process rights to include the rights not to wear a mask or to be tested for a virus.”  The court also quickly dispatched a claim that these additional requirements violated the students’ rights to religious freedom, noting that students who receive a religious exemption are subject to the same additional safety measures as those who receive a medical exemption.  Interestingly, the court went so far as to suggest that the University was not required to provide a religious exemption from the vaccine requirement at all, but that in doing so the University “did so above and beyond that mandated by the Constitution.” 

Ultimately, the court looked at the balance of harm if it were to grant the students’ requested preliminary injunction versus if it were to deny the request.  The court noted that if the students’ choice to refuse the vaccine only affected themselves, the balance would lean in favor of the students.  In this case, however, the evidence presented showed that the refusal to be vaccinated while also not complying with heightened safety precautions could “sicken and even kill many others who did not consent to that trade-off.”  The court found that the balance weighs in favor of upholding the University’s policy and declined to issue the injunction, thus allowing the University to implement the policy.

So, what is the take-away?  Obviously, this court was not in Connecticut, and thus Connecticut state and federal courts would not be bound by the decision.  Its reasoning, however, is instructive.  For colleges and universities that find mandatory vaccination requirements are the way to move forward with an in-person educational experience for their students while trying to protect, to the extent possible, the health and safety of their communities, this case suggests some things that those schools should consider when crafting their policies.  For example, schools must provide for medical exemptions from the policy and should consider religious exemptions as well.  Additionally, schools may put additional safety measures in place for those students who are approved for exemptions.  

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