Federal Judge Gives a Public IHE the Green Light for Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccinations

4 min

On July 19, 2021, a federal judge affirmed Indiana University’s policy of requiring its students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This first-of-its-kind decision is likely to set the bar for future decisions arising from challenges to the introduction and enforcement of mandatory vaccination policies for students entering institutions of higher education (IHEs) this fall. As we have discussed previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance permitting IHEs with a fully vaccinated population, including students, faculty, and staff, to return to in-person education at full capacity. However, until this decision, no federal court has ruled on an IHE’s mandatory vaccination policy.

Case History and Decision

Indiana University, a public IHE, acted under state authority and adopted a policy that mandated that all student, faculty, and staff be fully vaccinated before returning to campus for the fall 2021 semester. Like many other IHEs’ mandatory vaccination policies, Indiana University’s policy stated that if the individual is not vaccinated, they are not permitted on campus to participate in in-person classes or events. Additionally, according to the policy, Indiana University will also suspend students’ emails and university accounts and deactivate their access cards if they refuse to receive the vaccine. Faculty and staff will face termination for the same decision. Because of these ramifications, on June 21, 2021, eight students filed a lawsuit against the Trustees of Indiana University in Klaassen et al. v. The Trustees of Indiana University, No. 1:21-CV-238 DRL. The plaintiffs argued that this mandate violates their liberties protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, including a right to personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and a right to reject medical treatment. Accordingly, the plaintiffs argued that the restriction on fundamental rights was entitled to strict scrutiny, citing constitutional arguments that the “mandated vaccinations are a substantial burden and that Indiana University must prove narrow tailoring to a compelling interest that justifies mandatory vaccinations.” The Court disagreed, instead holding that the Fourteenth Amendment permits Indiana University to institute and enforce a mandatory vaccination policy because it is protecting the legitimate public health interest for its students, faculty, and staff. Specifically, the Court notes that “[s]tates don’t have arbitrary power, but they have discretion to act reasonably in protecting the public’s health.” In so finding, the Court relied on the decision of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, 24-25 (1905). The Court acknowledged that Jacobson was a precursor to the notion that a state can mandate a vaccine during a health crisis, in that case smallpox, if it’s rationally related to a legitimate state interest. Relying on Jacobson, the Court agreed that the right to refuse a vaccine during an epidemic is not a fundamental right under the Constitution. The Court found the plaintiffs would likely not succeed on the merits of their Fourteenth Amendment violation claim because Indiana University mandating the COVID-19 vaccination during this pandemic is rationally related to a legitimate interest in public health, thus denying the preliminary injunction.

Applicability to Other IHEs

Other IHEs—private and public—should take heed of this decision. While the decision was primarily in the public IHE context, it does provide general guiding principles going forward. For example, the plaintiffs in Klaassen alleged that the mandatory vaccination policy violates their free exercise of religion. The Court notes that, in fact, the policy is a “neutral rule of general applicability … in that it is applied to all students, whether religious or not.” In fact, Indiana University provides exemptions for religious reasons and medical reasons, including an allergy or pregnancy, and for students enrolled in the online program. Although private IHEs have fewer constitutional restrictions, both public and private IHEs should maintain a neutral and generally applicable policy to avoid claims of discrimination or a violation of an individual’s free exercise of religion. The decision also notes that while the IHE is presenting a difficult choice to students—get the vaccine or apply elsewhere—this ultimatum does not equate to coercion. The Court also notes that Indiana University is following the recommendations of other well-positioned public health and administrative agencies, such as the CDC, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Indiana State Department of Health, in addition to its own policy review team. Trusting these reliable sources in creating its policy is a rational decision with the purpose of protecting the community’s public health, which does not require the Court to intervene. Most importantly, the Court reaffirmed that the Constitution does not provide a fundamental right to a collegiate education.

IHEs should review the recent decision in full and stay up to date with federal, state, and local laws and guidance regarding COVID-19, reopening requirements, and mandatory vaccination policies. We will continue to monitor relevant case law for additional guidance. IHEs with questions about the decision and how it affects them should feel free to contact the authors of this article or any other member of Venable's Labor and Employment Group.