Many more court rulings on vaccine mandates expected

The court battles are just getting started over vaccine mandates. And while different judges may very well judge the issue differently, the first decision out of the gate put universities' public health interests over students' rights to refuse a requirement they consider unnecessary for their return to campus.

On Sunday, a federal court in Indiana declined to block Indiana University's requirement that all students this fall be fully vaccinated upon returning to campus.

"The Fourteenth Amendment 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," Judge Damon Leichty wrote in his 101-page decision.

It's the first time a federal court has weighed in on the issue but it's unlikely to be the last.

"Already over 500 colleges and universities have made announcements that they plan on these mandates," said Professor Lawrence Gostin, the director of Georgetown Law's O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law.

On Friday, Stony Brook University in Suffolk County, New York, announced that "all students planning to live on campus as a residential student in the fall 2021 semester must be fully vaccinated" unless they receive medical or religious exemptions from the school.

The availability of exemptions did not stop some 150 people from showing up near Stony Brook's campus to protest the mandate on Monday, while six of the eight students who sued Indiana University had already received religious exemptions from the school.

Gostin said objecting students would have a better case if the states themselves, rather than their public universities, were requiring vaccines, which have yet to obtain full FDA approval.

"It would probably be unlawful, that is a direct government mandate, and the reason is that we're still under an emergency use authorization," Gostin said.

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Meanwhile, West Orange, New Jersey-based Robert Wood Johnson Barnabas Health hospital this month fired six supervisor-level employees for their failure to either get fully vaccinated or seek medical or religious exemptions. But such private-sector employers have a much freer hand to issue mandates and punish those who do not comply.

"The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission has specifically said [private employers] are entitled to ask for proof of vaccination as proof of coming back to work," Gostin said.

What remains unresolved, though, is whether Judge Leichty's decision will stand as the Indiana University students' lawyer has vowed to appeal the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

And another legal battle has opened up over whether states can prevent businesses from instituting vaccine mandates. Last week, Norwegian Cruise Lines filed suit in federal court to block such a policy in Florida.