A federal judge upheld Indiana University’s requirement that students and staff members on campus be vaccinated against the coronavirus this fall, but the ruling is unlikely to be the last chapter in the culture wars over vaccine mandates.
In his opinion, released Monday, Judge Damon R. Leichty of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana said he weighed individual freedom against public health concerns in his ruling that the state’s flagship university could require vaccines.
Leichty’s ruling appeared to be the first case in which a university’s coronavirus vaccine requirement has been upheld, yet in delivering the ruling he expressed his personal misgivings, citing individual freedom and self-determination.
Somebody could point to “a certain Emersonian self-reliance and self-determination as preference — an unfettered right of the individual to choose the vaccine or not,” Leichty, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote in his ruling. But he added that judicial restraint was required to avoid “superimposing any personal view in the guise of constitutional interpretation.”
The judge’s conflicted sentiments appeared to mirror a national division, as plaintiffs in the case vowed to appeal.
A lawyer representing eight students at Indiana University, James Bopp Jr., said the case turned on the right to “bodily integrity and autonomy.”
“What we have here is the government forcing you to do something that you strenuously object to, and have your body invaded in the process,” said Bopp, of Terre Haute, Indiana, who is working with America’s Frontline Doctors, an organization that has questioned the coronavirus vaccines and promoted the use of alternative treatments.
The lawsuit — as well as a similar case pending in California — illustrates how vaccine mandates by colleges and universities have become deeply divisive, even as vaccination rates lag in many states and coronavirus variants are driving an uptick in new infections.
While as many as 500 schools around the country have said they would impose vaccination mandates when classes start this fall, several states have gone so far as to ban requirements that college students obtain coronavirus vaccines, and similar bans may be imposed in others, according to Hemi Tewarson, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy.
The result: Vaccine requirements can differ considerably depending on whether a school is in a Republican-led or Democratic-led state, or whether a student attends a public school or private one.
Even public universities within the same state can have different rules.
While Indiana University, in Bloomington, opted to mandate vaccines, Purdue University, a public school in West Lafayette, did not, instead requiring that students who were not vaccinated undergo regular testing.
The schools appear to be taking different paths, but both are pushing to get their students vaccinated, said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an industry trade organization.
“The science is clear; it’s unambiguous,” Hartle said, adding that university presidents in many states have been forced to finesse their policies to avoid confrontation with state leaders and lawmakers.
“How do we get students vaccinated without creating a political firestorm that distracts from our ultimate goal?” Hartle said. “The goal is to get shots in arms.”(BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM.)Students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison will not be required to be vaccinated, although the university says that it expects most will get one of the vaccines. Less than two hours away, at the private Marquette University in Milwaukee, students must get the vaccine.
In some places, confusion reigns. Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a public technical college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, mandated the vaccine on May 22, then rescinded the mandate in June after the state’s General Assembly voted to limit mandates for coronavirus vaccines.
Several days later, on July 1, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the legislation, calling it misguided and irresponsible.
In Mississippi, where public colleges generally have not mandated the vaccines, hundreds of professors at Mississippi State University, in Starkville, sent an open petition in May to state university leaders asking that vaccines be required.
The state’s medical school — the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in Jackson — recently announced that it would require that students and faculty either be vaccinated or wear an N-95 mask, effective later this month.
In making the announcement, university officials in the conservative state, where 33.8% of people are fully vaccinated, said they were bracing for a political backlash.
(END OPTIONAL TRIM.)Even though students and other young people are frequently spared the worst symptoms of the coronavirus, university environments appear to serve as incubators for the spread of the infection. An analysis by The New York Times found that rates of coronavirus infection were higher in university towns than elsewhere.
The Indiana case was filed on behalf of the students by Bopp, a lawyer known for his conservative advocacy on national legal issues.
Following the ruling, which denied a request for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the mandate, Bopp said he would appeal immediately to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the possibility the issue would reach the Supreme Court within two weeks.
Universities have routinely required a smorgasbord of vaccines for students as a requirement of admission and dormitory residence, often providing exceptions in the case of religious objections or health conditions. Yet, in those cases, the vaccines were fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The coronavirus vaccines currently in use have received only emergency provisional approval, one of the reasons officials cite in opposing mandates requiring them.
In addition to arguing that the vaccines’ emergency approval status means they should not be mandated, Bopp said they should not be required for students because their risk of serious infection and death from the virus is low.
“When you’re at the end stage of a pandemic and it’s ameliorated by about 95%, mandating the vaccine to the least vulnerable to a COVID infection, i.e. students, is not justified,” he said in an interview.
One of the plaintiffs in the Indiana case, Jaime Carini, a doctoral student in the music department, said she was opposed to the vaccination requirement on several grounds. But, she said, “Bodily integrity is obviously the most important.”This article originally appeared in The New York Times.