Indiana University's COVID vaccination requirement draws lawsuit from parents

AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

A group of parents of Indiana University students has filed a lawsuit Monday against the university’s requirement that all students be vaccinated. Indiana University (IU) is a publicly funded university, with its main campus in Bloomington. Employees of the university may face termination if they do not get vaccinated.

This is a potentially precedent-setting case. So far, more than 400 U.S. schools say students coming to campus this fall must be vaccinated. Back in May, IU announced a vaccination mandate for all students, faculty, and staff for the fall 2021 semester. The reason given is that vaccinations will allow campus life to get back to normal with in-person classes and events for a traditional college experience. Exemptions will be strictly limited.

All students, faculty and staff should have their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by July 1 in order to meet the university’s requirement. They will need to be fully vaccinated (all doses of a vaccine plus two weeks from the final dose) by Aug. 15 or when they first return to campus, whichever is earlier. This requirement applies to all IU campuses, including IUPUI.

“The COVID-19 vaccines that are currently authorized by the FDA are extremely safe and effective,” said Dr. Lana Dbeibo, director of vaccine initiatives for IU’s Medical Response Team and assistant professor of infectious diseases in the IU School of Medicine. “There are very, very few medical reasons a person would not be able to receive this vaccine. The COVID-19 vaccine is available throughout the U.S., and now those 12 years old and above are eligible. I recommend, unless you have a medical contraindication, to schedule and get the vaccine as soon as you can — not only for yourself, but for those you love as well.”

Students, faculty and staff will need to comply with the COVID-19 vaccine requirement in order to interact with the IU community in any way. This includes being on campus, taking or teaching courses, being employed and/or participating in activities.

With the July 1 deadline for first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations almost here, the parents’ group and its lawsuit are making headlines. The group, The IU Family for Choice not Mandates, held a protest on the Bloomington campus on June 10 to protest the vaccination requirement. Speakers included the Libertarian Party of Indiana’s Lucy Brenton and Ashley Grogg, founder of Hoosiers for Medical Liberty. A state representative, John Jacobs, was also a speaker. The group’s president points to the potential side effects of the vaccine.

The protest was organized by a newly-formed group called IU Family for Choice, Not Mandates, which has some 1,300 members. The group’s president, Ann Dorris, says members’ chief concern is the potential adverse health effects of the vaccine. “We are not anti-vaxxers,” she says. “We’re just against something that could potentially, long-term, have some very horrific side effects. There’s too many unknowns.” She also objects to the mandate itself: “What I would say to those that want this mandate is, ‘We respect your choice, now please respect ours.’”

Exemptions are available for religious reasons and health conditions. People with exemptions will be required to mask up on campus and get tested twice weekly. Vaccinated people aren’t required to wear masks and will participate in less frequent testing. This is a money-saving gesture as well as a public health move, according to Bloomington’s local newspaper, the Herald-Times. Instead of conducting mitigation tests, I.U. will conduct surveillance testing to detect potential outbreaks. It is estimated the university could save $10 million.

Can this vaccination mandate be enforced? That is the question. Fifteen states have signed legislation barring COVID-19 proof of vaccination requirements. Indiana is among those states. Most colleges already require vaccines for viral diseases like measles, mumps, and rubella. Many attorneys claim that the same requirement can be made for COVID-19 vaccinations. This is a grey area, though, since the COVID-19 vaccines are approved for emergency use only. For example, Virginia Tech officials determined that without formal approval from the FDA, it couldn’t mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. However, Harvard Law School professor Glenn Cohen disagrees. He says the COVID tests are approved under the same emergency authorization and have been used by colleges all year without issue. Some schools may choose to keep unvaccinated students off-campus. For example, Brown University requires students who refuse COVID vaccinations to file a petition to study online or take a leave of absence for the fall semester.

Private colleges led the charge on mandating COVID-19 vaccines. Rutgers University, Northeastern University, and several Ivy League institutions — Brown, Cornell, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton — were among the first. Public colleges, including most states’ flagship universities, have since followed suit.

Some public college systems, including The Ohio State University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Florida, say they will not or are unlikely to mandate the vaccine. Many institutions that do not plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccines hope to incentivize students instead.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita says that state universities can require COVID-19 vaccinations but can’t require proof of vaccination. All states require colleges to make accommodations for medical exemptions and most states do the same for religious exemptions. The exceptions to states allowing religious exemptions are California, Maine, Mississippi, New York, West Virginia, and Connecticut.

The lawsuit is moving forward. The group’s attorney has filed a public records request. Students are suing over violations of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In response, James Bopp Jr. of the Bopp Law Firm, P.C, who is representing The IU Family for Choice not Mandates, has filed a public records request asking for “all public records regarding the making of this decision and for all public records related to the implementation of this policy to determine whether or not this mandate is justified,” also warning that IU’s policy “opens the door to intentional religious discrimination” and that the University “could be in violation of federal law.”

Several students are moving ahead with a lawsuit that was filed Monday, alleging that IU’s mandate “violates the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which includes rights of personal autonomy and bodily integrity, and the right to reject medical treatment” and that it is a violation of “Indiana’s new Vaccine Passport Law which prohibits state and local units (including Indiana University (“IU”)) from requiring or issuing vaccine ‘passports’ that indicate an individual’s COVID immunization status.”

This lawsuit brings to mind the lawsuit filed by staff at Houston Methodist Hospital. They are required to get vaccinated or lose their jobs. The lawsuit failed when a federal judge ruled in favor of the hospital. We’ll see what the outcome is for colleges and universities.