US judge backs university requirement for Covid vaccines

In first federal court test, Indiana University can keep mandate with exemptions for its on-campus students

July 21, 2021
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A US judge upheld a public university’s requirement for Covid vaccines among its on-campus students, in the clearest victory yet for institutions amid politically charged opposition to basic health measures.

US District Court Judge Damon Leichty refused a request from eight students to block the mandate by Indiana University, admitting his own concern for individual rights but putting a higher priority on public safety.

The judge, a Trump administration appointee, said that the university acted in the best interests of its employees and students, and said that the students bringing the case did not show they would suffer any irreparable harm.

The eight students, he noted, still had choices that included deferring their studies, taking classes online, or moving to another institution.

“This hard choice doesn’t amount to coercion,” Judge Leichty said in his 101-page opinion.

Some 500 US colleges and universities have announced vaccination requirements for the autumn semester, although it remains an emotionally charged subject in higher education and beyond, with some states imposing bans on such mandates.

The result has been a patchwork of conditions, with private institutions generally having an easier legal pathway to a mandate, and campuses generally allowing exceptions tied to religious beliefs or health needs.

That is the case at Indiana University, where six of the eight students who filed the lawsuit already have been granted individual exemptions.

The American Council on Education, the main umbrella organisation of US higher education, has urged student vaccination but acknowledged the difficult circumstances that some institutions and their leaders face in particular regions and states.

Vaccines against Covid are widely available in the US, but their usage rates differ greatly, with people supportive of former US President Trump seen as far less likely to be vaccinated.

Some states report close to two-thirds of their residents fully vaccinated, while others are closer to one-third, as Trump backers persist in efforts to cast unfounded doubts on Covid protection. That has been accompanied in low-vaccination regions by rising cases of infections, hospitalisations and deaths.

Judge Leichty, in his ruling, refused to grant a temporary injunction blocking Indiana University from imposing its vaccine mandate pending a full trial on the matter.

In a separate case, the California State University system has been sued by three students at Cal State’s Chico campus over its vaccine mandate. Around the US, others facing such suits include school districts, medical facilities and detention centres.

The American Council on Education, in an advisory to US colleges and universities, said that the institutions are likely to prevail in any legal battle over Covid vaccine mandates, citing previous US Supreme Court rulings concerning vaccinations for diseases including smallpox and influenza.

Most existing vaccine requirements, the ACE noted, do allow exemptions for people with religious-based objections or underlying medical conditions.

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