Friday, August 20, 2021

Supreme Court Upholds Indiana University's COVID-19 Vaccination Mandate

In another step to bringing clarity to mandatory COVID-19 vaccines, the Supreme Court recently refused to hear a challenge to Indiana University's student vaccination mandate. Justice Barret, who handles emergency appeals arising out of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which encompasses the state of Indiana, declined to hear the case without comment. The decision marks the first time that the Supreme Court has dealt with a case testing the legality of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Indiana University's policy requires all students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 unless they are exempt for medical or religious reasons. Exempt students must wear masks and be tested for the virus twice a week.

Eight students sued the University, arguing that the policy violated their constitutional rights to "bodily integrity, autonomy and medical choice." In July, a federal District Court Judge rejected the students' claims, finding that the "balance of harms doesn't weigh in the students' favor here." The judge noted that the students' choice not to be vaccinated bears on the health of other students, faculty, and staff – a valid University concern.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the federal district court's opinion and held that the vaccine mandate did not violate the students' constitutional rights.

The 7th Circuit relied on a Supreme Court case from 1905, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which held that states could require vaccinations during the smallpox epidemic. Easterbrook pointed out that the University's policy was less strict than the one at issue in Jacobson because the University policy contained exemptions for religious or medical reasons.

Easterbrook also noted that Indiana does not require every adult member of the public to be vaccinated, as Massachusetts did in Jacobson. Instead, Easterbrook found that vaccination is merely a condition of attending Indiana University—those "who do not want to be vaccinated may go elsewhere." Because vaccination requirements for other diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, and more) are common in university enrollment policies, the Circuit Court held that the COVID-19 vaccination mandate did not violate the students' constitutional rights.

It is likely that the Court would reach a similar conclusion for employer-mandated vaccines. Applying the analysis of this recent case to employee mandates, “the balance of harm” to co-workers and the public likely does not weigh in favor of employees provided that medical and religious exemptions are available.