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Supreme Court rejects bid to block university vaccine mandate

The U.S. Supreme Court late Thursday denied a request to block Indiana University’s requirement that all students and staff get the COVID-19 vaccine before coming back to campus this fall.  

Justice Amy Coney Barrett — who has jurisdiction over the Seventh Circuit, which includes Indiana — rejected the emergency petition brought by eight students who argued the university's vaccine mandate violated their right to bodily integrity.

It is the first vaccine mandate case to come before the nation's highest court. Barrett's rejection of the students' petition bodes poorly for other vaccine mandate challenges throughout the country.

The short-lived challenge to Indiana University's vaccine mandate began June 21, when the eight students — one through their father — first filed a lawsuit  against it in federal court in Fort Wayne.

"With the ultimate goal of returning our campuses to normal operations, beginning with the fall 2021 semester, all Indiana University (including IUPUI) students, faculty and staff will be required to have a COVID-19 vaccine and be fully vaccinated or have an approved exemption before returning to campus," the university's vaccine policy stated.

The aggrieved students objected to this, claiming in the suit that to be forced to get a COVID-19 vaccine would violate their right to “personal autonomy and bodily integrity.”

To bolster their argument, the students pointed to then-low number of new COVID-19 cases in Indiana; since June 21 that number has risen from about 195 new cases daily to 2,484. They also cited the lower mortality rate for people under 30 years to claim that young college students would not need it.

"The known and unknown risks associated with COVID vaccines, particularly in those under 30, outweigh the risks to that population from the disease itself, by any rational measure," the suit argued.

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Though the students found support in many local Republican figures, including Indiana's Attorney General Todd Rokita, the federal court itself didn't find their arguments convincing. It bounced the student's request for injunction against Indiana University on July 19. On Aug. 6, the right-wing law firm representing the students, Bopp Law Firm, said it planned to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. They were confident the conservative-stacked high court would overturn the mandate.

"Since 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court has handed down many cases which supports Students’ claim that their constitutional rights have been violated by IU’s Mandate, and that IU has the burden to prove its Mandate passes constitutional muster," the firm wrote in an Aug. 6 press release.

They were wrong.

Justice Barrett, whose jurisdiction includes Indiana, made the decision to reject the appeal on her own without referring to the full court. As of Thursday evening, Barrett has not offered any comment or written opinion on her ruling. Despite her personal silence on the issue, her decision sets a precedent that will strain right-wing institutional challenges to vaccine and mask mandates.

"If conditions of higher education may include surrendering property and following instructions about what to read and write, it is hard to see a greater problem with medical conditions that help all students remain safe while learning," U.S. District Judge Damon Leichty wrote in his original decision upholding the university's vaccine requirement. "A university will have trouble operating when each student fears that everyone else may be spreading disease."

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