A federal judge has ruled that Indiana University may require its students to submit proof of Covid-19 vaccination before returning to campus this fall, in a setback to a legal effort in preparation against vaccination requirements in higher education.
In a 101-page ruling released on Sunday, U.S. District Judge Damon R. Leichty said the university system had acted reasonably to protect public health when it demanded that all of its students, faculty and staff be fully immunized against Covid- 19 before July 1. with limited medical and religious exceptions.
Saying so, the judge dismissed an injunction sought by eight college and graduate students who claimed the university’s vaccination policy unconstitutionally infringed on their bodily autonomy and medical privacy.
The case is among the first to challenge the constitutionality of Covid-19 vaccine requirements at public universities.
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Hundreds of private and public colleges and universities have adopted vaccination policies like that of the University of Indiana, in schools mainly clustered on the east and west coasts. Anti-vaccine activists have focused on public institutions, which are bound by constitutional restrictions as government entities, and have sued under the 14th Amendment and its protection of fundamental freedoms.
The University of Connecticut and California State University systems face similar lawsuits, with decisions pending from federal judges.
Indiana University spokesperson Chuck Carney praised Judge Leichty’s analysis.
“We appreciate the quick and thorough decision that allows us to focus on a full and safe return,” Mr. Carney said. “We look forward to welcoming everyone to our campuses for the fall semester. “
A lawyer representing the students, Conservative activist James Bopp Jr., said he would appeal. “We believe the court made a fundamental error,” he said.
Federal courts have consistently upheld vaccination requirements in K-12 schools and workplaces, according to James G. Hodge, professor of public health law at Arizona State University.
Opponents of the academic demands say they deserve further scrutiny from the courts. They argue that the risks of requiring Covid-19 vaccines – which the Food and Drug Administration has cleared for emergency use as part of a faster-than-normal safety review – outweigh the benefits for public health.
They say the number of severe Covid-19 cases among university and graduate students is too low to justify the risks of the vaccine, including a potential link between Pfizer -BioNTech and Moderna’s Covid-19 mRNA vaccines and disease inflammatory heart disease known as myocarditis.
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Justice Leichty wrote that while young adults are less likely to become seriously ill or die from infection and the worst of the pandemic may be over, the virus still poses risks for the age group, even in smaller numbers. And he wrote that the requirement is aimed at not only protecting the student community, but also curbing transmission to more vulnerable and older faculty and staff. Students are heading into the fall semester amid concerns about the more virulent and transmissible Delta variant, he wrote.
His opinion looked at the data on vaccine safety. He mentioned the findings of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention safety panel that said in June that there is a “likely association” between Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna’s Covid-19 mRNA vaccines and myocarditis in some younger individuals. The panel, the judge noted, said such cases were rare and most patients quickly felt better.
“No one should blithely dismiss the call for further investigation, but the student case is not strong today,” Justice Leichty wrote of the security evidence.
The judge also said the liberty interests at stake did not imply a fundamental right that would subject university politics to stricter constitutional scrutiny. He said Indiana University had to show that its policy was “rationally linked to ensuring the public health of students” – a lower standard it was meeting.
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The judge wrote that the university did not require students to have injections, but let them choose between vaccination and campus attendance. And he said the university’s policy enjoyed “broad support within its community,” noting endorsement statements from faculty councils and student governments. More than 42,000 students had received the vaccine as of June 25, he wrote.
Most student applicants have been granted exemptions from the vaccine requirements and can attend the fall semester, provided they wear masks indoors and are regularly tested for the virus. Complainants have consistently opposed the mask and testing requirements.
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