Aug 6, 2021 - Health

Supreme Court asked to weigh in on Indiana University vaccine mandate

Photo of three people walking along an outdoors path on the Indiana University campus
The Indiana University campus. Photo: Don & Melinda Crawford/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A lawyer representing Indiana University students filed an emergency petition on Friday asking the Supreme Court to block the school’s vaccine mandate, one of many set to take effect this fall.

Why it matters: It's the first time the nation's high court has been asked to weigh in on the issue. Public and private entities are increasingly mandating vaccines amid surges in COVID cases due to the Delta variant.

State of play: IU students must be vaccinated unless they qualify for an exemption due to related medical issues or religious objections. If an exemption applies, they are required to wear masks and get tested twice a week.

  • Lower courts have upheld the mandate, citing a 1905 Supreme Court decision that a state can require vaccines against smallpox.
  • James Bopp, the students' lawyer, is asking the Supreme Court to act by Aug. 13. Justices will likely ask the university for its response, per CNN.

What they're saying: "IU is coercing students to give up their rights to bodily integrity, autonomy, and of medical treatment choice in exchange for the discretionary benefit of matriculating at IU," Bopp wrote in an emergency petition.

  • Students' resistance is "based on legitimate concerns including underlying medical conditions, having natural antibodies, and the risks associated with the vaccine," he added.
  • He also argues that the pandemic is coming to an end — despite rising case numbers in the U.S. — and that "community mitigation measures should be [accordingly] discontinued."

The other side: "These plaintiffs just need to wear a mask and be tested, requirements that are not constitutionally problematic," a panel of GOP-appointed judges on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the case earlier this year.

  • If a student does not wish to meet the conditions, they may "go elsewhere."
  • "A university will have trouble operating when each student fears that everyone else may be spreading diseases," the court noted.
    • "Few people want to return to remote education — and we do not think that the Constitution forces the distance-learning approach on a university that believes vaccination (or masks and frequent testing of the unvaccinated) will make in-person operations safe enough."

An IU spokesperson told CNN last week that the university "remains confident" it will prevail because of a legitimate public health interest in ensuring the safety of students, faculty and staff.

The big picture: Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has warned Americans not to let politics get in the way of schools safely reopening.

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