US Supreme Court Declines to Hear Case on Vaccine Mandate at Indiana University

August 13, 2021

The United States Supreme Court denied a request from eight Indiana University students to block the University’s requirement that students receive a COVID vaccine to attend classes in the fall semester. 

The University announced its plan to require vaccination of all staff and students in May 2021. The vaccine mandate includes exceptions for those who object on religious or medical grounds, however, those individuals must wear masks and submit to COVID tests twice a week. 

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case did not include a statement explaining why, but it leaves in place a ruling from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals from a three-judge panel that held the vaccination mandate was constitutional and based on the University’s legitimate interest in the health of students and staff. All three appellate court judges were appointed by Republicans.  

The case made its way to the Supreme Court after the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction was denied by a federal trial court. The 7th Circuit upheld the trial court in a four-page decision, relying primarily on the US Supreme Court’s 1905 decision in Jacobson v. Massachusetts. In Jacobson, the Court upheld a conviction for an adult who refused to get the smallpox vaccine despite a state-wide mandate that every adult receive the vaccine. The 7th Circuit stated that because IU’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate isn’t as broad as the one in Jacobson and allows for religious and medical exceptions, it is clearly constitutional.  

The Court also spent significant time addressing issues specific to higher education, noting that submitting to a vaccination or health examination is a condition of enrollment that is “normal and proper.” The judges went on to say that “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.” 

The 7th Circuit did not address the plaintiff’s arguments regarding the vaccine being “experimental” due to it being given under an emergency use authorization from the FDA. With the Pfizer vaccine seemingly near full authorization, it may be that the Supreme Court felt that the issue would be moot by the time it heard the case and ruled. Some commentators have also questioned the strength of the plaintiffs in the Indiana case. Six have already been granted religious exemptions. At least one is now making religious objections to wearing a mask, despite not objecting to wearing one during the spring semester and wearing masks at religious services. Another objected to the testing requirements because she claims nasal swabs cause cancer. 

Alternatively, the Court may be signaling that it will not overturn its more than 100 year old precedent from Jacobson and a similar case from 1922 which allowed vaccine mandates in schools. These cases were decided under what is called “rational basis scrutiny,” meaning that if a state has a legitimate interest in an outcome it can take rational and reasonably tailored steps to achieve its goals. Here, the state has a legitimate interest in maintaining the health and welfare of its citizens and requiring vaccines is deemed to be a rational and reasonable way to do so. 

The Indiana University mandate is one of the first legal challenges to a state-actor requiring students and employees to be vaccinated that has moved through the court system. It won’t be the last, however, with more than 600 universities requiring the vaccine and California and New York requiring it of state workers.  

Obviously vaccination policies are at the forefront of most employers’ minds. This case should provide comfort to employers who are considering a vaccine mandate. All such policies should comply with the EEOC’s guidance on mandatory vaccination and be crafted in consultation with an experienced attorney. 

KJK will continue to follow this case and other legal developments relating to COVID-19 and mandatory vaccination for both students and employers. If you have questions about the impact of the ruling please contact Jennifer Hart at jmh@kjk.com or 216.310.4917 or one of KJK’s Student and Athlete Defense or Labor and Employment professionals.