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Supreme Court won’t block Indiana University vaccine mandate as Justice Barrett rejects student plea

Visitors walk along the plaza and steps to the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Justice Amy Coney Barrett on Thursday rejected a plea from a group of Indiana University students to stop the university’s requirement that all students be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Barrett, who received the request because she is the Supreme Court justice tasked with emergency petitions from that region of the country, did not give a reason. It appears she made the decision on her own, as she did not mention referring the matter to the other justices.

It was the first case about vaccination requirements to reach the Supreme Court. Both a federal district judge and a unanimous panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit had previously rejected the request that the university’s requirement be put on hold while the issue was further litigated.

Indiana University vaccine mandate upheld by judge

The university in May required all faculty, students and staff to be vaccinated unless they applied and qualified for an exemption, such as a religious objection or a medical reason for not receiving the vaccine.

“Each university may decide what is necessary to keep other students safe in a congregate setting,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the 7th Circuit opinion supporting the school. “Vaccinations protect not only the vaccinated persons but also those who come in contact with them, and at a university close contact is inevitable.”

Barrett’s order comes as universities and companies across the country are stepping up vaccination requirements as the virus’s delta variant spreads. Even as the Indiana University litigation has advanced, the school announced it would require all students, faculty, staff, and visitors to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

According to the school’s policy, those who receive a religious or medical exemption must wear masks in public spaces and be regularly tested.

Eight students sued, although six of them had received a religious exemption and a seventh qualified but had not applied.

In their filing to the Supreme Court, the students claimed a constitutional violation.

“Students are facing IU’s imminent demand that they relinquish their constitutional rights in order to start school this fall,” their application said. It added that the school “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.”

They contended the vaccine could be more dangerous to them than the virus.

“The risk of serious morbidity and mortality from COVID for those under 30 is close to zero,” their lawyer, James Bopp, wrote. “The known and unknown risks associated with COVID vaccines, particularly in those under 30, outweigh the risks to that population from the disease itself.”

It added: “ ‘Protection of others’ does not relieve our society from the central canon of medical ethics requiring voluntary and informed consent.”

The lower courts relied on a Supreme Court precedent from 1905. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, the court backed a government requirement that people get vaccinated against smallpox or pay a fine.

Easterbrook, who is prominent in the conservative legal establishment, said the Indiana University case was even easier than Jacobson for two reasons.

One is that the law at issue in 1905 did not contain exceptions for religious or medical reasons, as the university does, he wrote. And secondly, the requirement applies only to those who want to attend Indiana University.

“People who do not want to be vaccinated may go elsewhere,” he wrote.

The case is Klaassen v. Trustees of Indiana University.