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Judge to Decide if University’s Vaccine Requirement Stands

Attorneys for a group of eight Indiana students argued their case Tuesday in federal court, saying the policy violates students’ rights to bodily integrity, informed choice of medical treatment and religious freedom.

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(TNS) - A group of Indiana University students challenging the institution's COVID-19 vaccination requirement say the university policy infringes on their constitutional rights.

Attorneys for the group of eight IU students argued their case Tuesday in federal court in South Bend saying the policy violates students' rights to bodily integrity, informed choice of medical treatment and religious freedom.

IU's policy, announced this spring, will require all students, faculty and staff in the fall semester to be fully vaccinated either by Aug. 15 or when returning to campus after Aug. 1, whichever is earlier.

The university will recognize certain medical and religious exemptions to its requirement, but IU officials say unvaccinated students will need to continue following some coronavirus mitigation strategies that the university is easing for other students who are fully vaccinated.

IU officials say these policies will help the school move toward its goal of a more normal on-campus experience after a year of remote learning, altered schedules and physical distancing during the pandemic.

"Requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for IU students, faculty and staff with appropriate exemptions continues the university's comprehensive science and public health-drive approach to managing and mitigating the pandemic on our campuses," former IU President Michael McRobbie said in a news release this summer. "Throughout the pandemic our paramount concern has been ensuring the health and safety of the IU community. This requirement will make a 'return to normal' a reality for the fall semester."

Attorneys for the eight students challenging the vaccine requirement, however, say IU's policy goes too far and have asked U.S. District Court Judge Damon Leichty to "enjoin," or essentially block, IU from requiring the vaccine this fall.

The eight students bringing a case against IU include students of all class standings and varying disciplines, incoming freshmen to graduate students included, studying everything from music to business to law.

Seven of the eight have already received exemptions to the vaccine requirement, IU's attorneys said, and the eighth student did not apply for an exemption.

The students' case centers around what they see as a violation of constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment.

James Bopp Jr., an attorney for the students, argued Tuesday that IU's mandate of a vaccine available only under an emergency use authorization with little peer reviewed research on potential side effects runs contrary to modern medical ethics and conflicts with the concept of voluntary informed consent.

Public health officials, however, have repeatedly said the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective and that individuals should consult with their doctor if concerned about adverse side effects of the vaccine.

Bopp also said IU's criteria for exemption from the vaccine is too narrow and pressures students to decide between getting vaccinated against their wishes to complete their studies at IU or starting over at a new university.

Bopp compared the prevalence of deaths from COVID-19 among young adults to death by suicide, homicide and car crashes, and said with recent state-level decisions to ease mask requirements, now is not the time for IU to introduce new COVID-19 restrictions.

"We're at the end stage of the pandemic," Bopp said, adding later, "It would seem to me that it's unreasonable and unrational to make someone take a vaccine when there is so much unknown."

Other universities in Indiana, including Notre Dame and Butler, have established vaccine requirements, but both are private institutions and have not been challenged on their policies.

Anne Ricchiuto, an attorney representing the university, said Tuesday that IU officials can only act with information available to them at the time, including federal guidance, which recommends the vaccine as the best way to protect people from contracting coronavirus.

She said the university's exemption criteria, which includes religious grounds, medical documentation of an allergy related to the vaccine and its ingredients and medical deferrals, closely reflects language from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but that actual implementation of the policy may be more lenient than the university's written policy suggests.

The university also offers an exemption to students engaged 100% in online programs with no on-campus activities.

"It can't be unreasonable to follow what guidance says is our very best tool," Ricchiuto said. "You can dig a hole with a spoon, but why wouldn't you use a shovel?"

The IU students also take issue with the university's policies for unvaccinated students. IU officials say students granted vaccine exemptions should continue to wear masks and participate in mitigation testing even though those practices will be lifted for individuals who have been vaccinated.

Bopp argued this alternative set of policies for unvaccinated students infringes on a student's right to religious liberty.

"It's like saying to a Muslim, we're not going to exclude you from our restaurant, but we're going to make you eat pork here," Bopp said.

IU's attorney, Ricchiuto, responded saying the university doesn't believe its policy violates fundamental rights to education, religious convictions or bodily autonomy.

She said returning students suing the university told attorneys in depositions that they sustained no harm from complying with similar policies in past semesters before vaccines became widely available. The attorney also said IU doesn't intend to create a robust enforcement arm or encourage students to report one another for violating mask policies.

The university's COVID-19 mitigation strategies, she said, focus on unvaccinated individuals because they are the most vulnerable to catch the virus.

"IU is not contending its decisions are not reviewable, that IU has unlimited power," Ricchiuto said. "There are limits. Upholding this vaccine (requirement) is not saying IU can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants."

Bopp said he hopes the judge acts on both IU's vaccine requirement and mitigation strategies for exempt students.

After hearing more than three hours of oral argument Tuesday, Leichty said he hopes to come to a decision quickly on the expedited case. Both parties have an interest in seeing a ruling before students return in August for the start of the fall semester.

The judge, however, gave no hard deadline for coming to a decision in the case, which has seen hundreds of exhibits entered as evidence since students first brought their complaint in June.

"I will certainly put my full effort into this case," Leichty said, saying only that his decision will be "very, very soon."

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