The University of Notre Dame set out to vaccinate its student body against COVID-19 in April 2021. To accomplish its goal, Notre Dame’s administration promised to end some of the draconian restrictions on campus if it could achieve 90 percent student compliance.
The administration changed course from strongly encouraging the experimental vaccines to mandating them within days, making Notre Dame one of the first universities to require the experimental COVID-19 vaccine for the following school year’s admission. To encourage students to vaccinate before they left for summer break, the administration promised if students complied, more activities would be available for senior week and graduation.
Sweetening the deal even further, the university loaded $15 onto the meal cards of obedient students. In record time, the school reached its initial goal of getting 90 percent of students vaccinated.
Despite students being at low risk of complications from the virus as well as questions about the long-term effects of the vaccine, no great campus protest erupted as a result of the mandate. Some anxious students, however, filed medical and religious exemptions.
Amidst the vaccination drive, two Notre Dame law professors — Gerard Bradley and Thomas Paprocki — wrote a letter in the student newspaper to provide students valid religious and medical reasons to support exemptions, noting it “would be immoral” to exclude students from campus who declined to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, however, the letter came after many students had already received their initial jabs.
Although it appears an overwhelming majority of students took doses, many staff and faculty held back, as it was still optional for Notre Dame employees. After a year of employees voluntarily uploading their vaccine status in Notre Dame’s database, the vaccination figure for faculty was 71 percent and for the rest of the staff was 56 percent. Yet Notre Dame also scrapped its voluntary vaccine plan for employees and simply mandated the vaccine for all of the school’s workers.
Threatening ‘A World of Pain’ to Cautious People
With Orwellian flair, the university announced that employee religious exemption requests would be routed through its Office of Institutional Equity. The exemption request form includes a check box that says: “I understand that the university will require those who receive approved exemptions to undergo regular COVID-19 surveillance testing and continue to wear masks indoors at Notre Dame.”
At about the same time Notre Dame was mandating the vaccination for its employees, Indiana University also issued mandatory vaccine rules for its state system. The Indianapolis Star wrote a Q&A-style article to explain IU’s new policy. This was the answer the newspaper provided to the question, “What if I choose not to get vaccinated (at IU)?”:
To quote Walter in ‘The Big Lebowski,’ you’re entering a world of pain. Students will have their class registrations canceled and access to CrimsonCard — the system that provides access to a wide array of services, from the library to meal plans to residence halls — terminated. They’ll also have their access to Canvas, email and other IU systems cut off, and won’t be allowed to participate in any on-campus activity. The consequences are even more dire for faculty and staff who choose not to get vaccinated as they will lose their jobs with IU. Working remotely to not meet the requirement won’t be allowed.
Additionally, IU stated in its press release: “Exemptions will be strictly limited to a very narrow set of criteria, including medical exemptions, and documented significant religious exemptions.” The added word “significant” in front of “religious exemption” left one wondering exactly what kind of religious test the state would require to determine an exemption’s passing grade.
Indiana University’s mandate resulted in a statewide uproar. Sociologists could certainly argue about why the responses to a private and public school were so different, but numbers certainly played a part. Notre Dame has about 12,700 students, whereas IU has more than 110,000. Additionally, many Notre Dame students are from out of state, so some who oppose the mandates have little connection to Indiana elected officials.
‘In Clear Violation’
The fact IU is a state school made its mandate especially questionable, due to a new law Indiana passed in April that prohibits state or local governments from issuing or requiring a vaccine passport. Nineteen members of Indiana’s House of Representatives wrote a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking him to use his executive authority to stop state universities from issuing a mandate.
That was followed by an official opinion from the state’s Attorney General Todd Rokita that IU’s policy “unquestionably violates the new law.” The state Senate’s Republican caucus got involved and wrote a letter to President Michael McRobbie of IU, saying: “This heavy-handed mandate goes against many of the liberties on which our founders built our democratic Republic.”
With all the public criticism, IU reconsidered and said vaccinations would still be required, but proof would be unnecessary. Instead, the school said those who received the vaccine would be able to “certify their status as part of a simple attestation form,” adding that special incentives would be offered to those who uploaded their vaccination documentation but forms for requesting medical and religious exemptions would still be available.
Most likely, IU was eyeing the attorney general’s language about Purdue University when it crafted its new language. Rokita also touched on Purdue’s vaccination policy in his letter, offering students the choice between vaccination or regular testing:
HEA 1405 (the state’s new law against vaccine passports) only prohibits public universities from requiring proof of the COVID-19 vaccine; it does not prohibit them from requiring the vaccination itself. In its current form, Purdue University’s policy does not appear to violate HEA 1405. … Purdue seems to be using a procedural loophole by not technically requiring the vaccinated student to produce the immunization record. If it does, or it requires any student or subgroup to do so, then it will be in clear violation …
To provide further incentive to vaccinate, Purdue announced a new lottery — the Old Golden Ticket Vaccination Drawing — in which 10 lucky students who show proof of their vaccine can receive the full cost of undergraduate tuition for one year.
The New Discrimination
Other issues dog such vaccine mandates. While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently said employers can require COVID vaccines, it also acknowledged religious and medical exemptions may be permitted in some situations. It also stated that while incentives can be offered, they cannot be coercive.
Other questions persist about whether vaccines under Emergency Use Authorization — which means they don’t yet have full Food and Drug Administration approval — can be required — although that issue has not yet been tested in court. Indeed, the Siri Glimstad law firm in New York issued a letter to Notre Dame’s President John Jenkins challenging the mandate based on the vaccine’s Emergency Use Authorization status, among other reasons.
In all these university cases, there is a lot of pressure on campuses to vaccinate. According to Notre Dame’s instructions, by continuing to wear a mask, employees who are vaccinated will effectively be forced to publicly reveal their private vaccination status. IU made the same requirement.
Undoubtedly some people will view these maskers as “unhealthy,” “unclean,” or “anti-vaxxers” and treat them differently. Additionally, those who don’t comply with mandatory vaccination will be required to participate in regular testing at all three schools. It’s one more way to draw attention to their vaccination status and set them apart from their peers or colleagues.
Such policies are discriminatory and will lead to a two-class society of the haves and have-nots. This discrimination will not only happen at the university level, but anywhere where such unequal treatment occurs, and where people lose out on opportunities because of their vaccination status.
The reasons people choose to not vaccinate are many, whether it be religious, personal, or because they already have natural immunity. What should be clear to all is that a just society should never penalize those who are unwilling to undergo medical procedures.
Indiana legislators have heard the outcry from the universities, but more pleas for help are likely to come from different sectors of the state as the mandate issue heats up. Rather than attempt to solve the problem piecemeal, the state’s General Assembly would be smart to tackle the broader issue and pass a bill providing comprehensive and meaningful protections for all of its citizens by illegalizing discrimination based on COVID-19 vaccination status.