As we have written elsewhere regarding private institutions, vaccine mandates are, with certain exemptions for medical or religious reasons, legally permissible.
On August 12, the Supreme Court of the United States denied eight students’ request to block Indiana University’s requirement that students be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Justice Amy Coney Barrett rejected the request without comment, without seeking a response from the state and without referring the request to the full court for a vote. Justice Barrett’s denial indicates the court’s belief that the students’ challenge was not a particularly close case.
In May, the university announced a requirement that, beginning with the fall 2021 semester, all faculty, students and staff must be fully vaccinated unless they qualify for a medical or religious exemption before returning to campus. The students’ case, Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University, is the first test of a COVID-19 vaccine requirement in the context of an educational institution to arrive at the Supreme Court. The students had challenged whether the requirement was a “violation of their constitutional rights to bodily integrity and autonomy and medical treatment choice.” The trial court denied the students’ request for an injunction, writing that the Constitution “permits Indiana University to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty, and staff.”
Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the case’s trial judge, refusing to issue the students injunctive relief. Writing for the unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Frank H. Easterbrook concluded:
Each university may decide what is necessary to keep other students safe in a congregate setting. Health exams and vaccinations against other diseases… are common requirements of higher education. Vaccination protects not only the vaccinated persons but also those who come in contact with them, and at a university close contact is inevitable.
The judge added that if the students―seven of whom qualified for an exemption―did not want to be vaccinated, the requirements that they wear masks and be tested were not “constitutionally problematic.”
On a similar note, on August 3, a law professor at George Mason University challenged his employer’s vaccine requirement ,arguing that the measures are unjustified for employees, like himself, who have already contracted and recovered from COVID-19. GMU’s policy is similar to Indiana University’s and requires that all faculty submit proof of vaccination by October 1, or have an approved medical or religious exemption. The GMU professor’s complaint makes a similar argument regarding bodily integrity and informed medical choice, but adds:
Given the antibodies generated by his naturally acquired immunity, the Commonwealth of Virginia cannot claim a compelling governmental interest in overriding [the professor’s] personal autonomy and constitutional rights by forcing him, in essence, to either be vaccinated or to suffer adverse professional consequences.
The trial court has yet to hold a hearing on the merits of the professor’s case.
As we have written elsewhere regarding private institutions, vaccine mandates are, with certain exemptions for medical or religious reasons, legally permissible. With the Supreme Court’s refusal in Klaassen, it appears that similar mandates are allowable at public institutions, as well. Current precedent suggests that a university is entitled to set conditions for attendance, just as it can require the payment of tuition and instruct students in a course of academic study. As the Seventh Circuit concluded, if a student does not want to be vaccinated, they “have ample educational opportunities” elsewhere. While the GMU professor’s challenge adds an interesting twist, he is not likely to prevail, given the conclusions reached in Klaassen. For colleges and universities that are issuing vaccine mandates, the Supreme Court’s refusal to overturn (or even consider overturning) the university’s policy is an indication that vaccine requirements in the context of an educational institution, with certain exemptions, are legally permissible and here to stay.
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