WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court allowed Indiana University on Thursday to require students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Eight students had sued the university, saying the requirement violated their constitutional rights to “bodily integrity, autonomy and medical choice.” But they conceded that exemptions to the requirement — for religious, ethical and medical reasons — “virtually guaranteed” that anyone who sought an exemption would be granted one.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who oversees the federal appeals court in question, turned down the student’s request for emergency relief without comment, which is the court’s custom in ruling on emergency applications. She acted on her own, without referring the application to the full court, and she did not ask the university for a response. Both of those moves were indications that the application was not on solid legal footing.
The students were represented by James Bopp Jr., a prominent conservative lawyer who has been involved in many significant lawsuits, including the Citizens United campaign finance case. He argued that the university’s vaccine requirement was putting his clients at risk.
“The known and unknown risks associated with Covid vaccines, particularly in those under 30, outweigh the risks to that population from the disease itself,” Mr. Bopp told the justices. “Protection of others does not relieve our society from the central canon of medical ethics requiring voluntary and informed consent.”
The ruling capped a string of setbacks for the students in the case, which was the first to reach the Supreme Court concerning the coronavirus in the context of an educational institution. The court has previously ruled on many emergency applications arising from the government’s response to the virus in other settings, including houses of worship and prisons.
A trial judge had refused to block the university’s requirement, writing that the Constitution “permits Indiana University to pursue a reasonable and due process of vaccination in the legitimate interest of public health for its students, faculty and staff.”
A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, declined to issue an injunction while the students’ appeal moved forward.
“Each university may decide what is necessary to keep other students safe in a congregate setting,” Judge Frank H. Easterbrook wrote for the appeals court. “Health exams and vaccinations against other diseases (measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, varicella, meningitis, influenza and more) are common requirements of higher education. Vaccination protects not only the vaccinated persons but also those who come in contact with them, and at a university close contact is inevitable.”
Judge Easterbrook, who was appointed to the appeals court by President Ronald Reagan, relied on a 1905 Supreme Court decision, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which ruled that states may require all members of the public to be vaccinated against smallpox or pay a fine.
Understand the State of Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- Vaccine rules . . . and businesses. Private companies are increasingly mandating coronavirus vaccines for employees, with varying approaches. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. On Aug. 11, California announced that it would require teachers and staff of both public and private schools to be vaccinated or face regular testing, the first state in the nation to do so. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York. On Aug. 3, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced that proof of vaccination would be required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, becoming the first U.S. city to require vaccines for a broad range of activities. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
The smallpox vaccination requirement allowed no exceptions, Judge Easterbrook wrote, while Indiana University’s requirement made accommodations for students with religious and other objections. (Exempted students must wear masks and take frequent coronavirus tests, requirements that Judge Easterbrook said “are not constitutionally problematic.”)
The university was entitled to set conditions for attendance, he wrote, just as it can require the payment of tuition and instruct students “to read what a professor assigns.”
“People who do not want to be vaccinated may go elsewhere,” Judge Easterbrook wrote, noting that many universities do not require vaccinations. “Plaintiffs have ample educational opportunities.”