Office of the Governor

Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine. Over the last century, vaccines have eliminated many deadly diseases, including smallpox, measles, and polio. Today, widespread vaccination is our best chance of ending the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 vaccine tracker, Connecticut has the second-highest vaccination rate in the United States, with 67.5 percent of the eligible population fully vaccinated as of September 17.

Unfortunately, the current vaccination numbers are not enough to achieve herd immunity, and the anti-vaccine movement, which has grown exponentially during the pandemic, is causing a rise in vaccine hesitancy.

The anti-vaccine movement is alive and well in Connecticut. Earlier this year, thousands of parents protested as state lawmakers repealed Connecticut’s religious exemption for mandatory school vaccinations. In addition, groups like Connecticut Liberty Rally and Unmask Our Kids CT are fighting tooth and nail against vaccine mandates. These organizations have organized numerous anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests throughout Connecticut, including the recent “CT Freedom Rally” at the State Capitol.

Contrary to the claims of anti-vaccine protestors, vaccine mandates do not violate your Constitutional rights. The United States has a long history of mandating vaccination, and there is ample legal precedent supporting vaccine requirements.

The constitutional basis for vaccine mandates stems from the police powers of the states. Police powers are best defined as the authority delegated to the states under the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In Gibbons v. Ogden, the Supreme Court described police power as an “immense mass of legislation” that includes “health laws of every description.” According to the Court’s opinion in the Slaughter-House Cases, police power is preeminent because the “security of social order, [and] . . . the life and health of the citizen” depends upon it.

Jacobson v. Massachusetts is one of the landmark Supreme Court decisions regarding states’ authority to implement mandatory vaccination programs. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Boston experienced a major smallpox outbreak. To control the spread of disease, the Cambridge Board of Health used the power granted to them under Massachusetts state law to impose a vaccine mandate. Henning Jacobson, a Swedish Lutheran minister, was one of six individuals prosecuted for refusing to comply with the requirement. Although doctors considered smallpox vaccination to be medically safe, Jacobson objected because he allegedly experienced an adverse reaction to a childhood vaccine. With the help of prominent lawyers selected by the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination Society, Jacobson appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

The arguments that Jacobson’s legal team presented to the Supreme Court bear a remarkable resemblance to the objections proffered by Connecticut anti-vaxxers. When making their case, Jacobson’s legal team argued that vaccination was dangerous and that Massachusetts’ mandatory vaccination law violated his 14th Amendment due to process rights and was “unreasonable, arbitrary, and oppressive.” They also claimed that the compulsory vaccination requirement was “hostile to the inherent right of every freeman to care for his own body and health in such way as to him seems best” and that the enforcement of said law was “nothing short of an assault upon [Jacobson’s] person.”

The Supreme Court’s decision in Jacobson upheld the right of states to compel vaccination. Although the Court acknowledged that there are spaces where an individual may “rightfully dispute the authority of any human government . . . to interfere with the exercise of [his own] will”, they expressly rejected vaccine exemptions based on personal choice. Justice Harlan, writing for the court’s majority, concluded that police powers allow states and local municipalities to pass laws that protect the public health and general welfare of their residents and that the smallpox vaccination mandate had a “real [and] substantial relation to the protection of the public health and safety.” The opinion also asserted that “the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States . . . does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint.”

14 years after Jacobson, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of vaccination requirements for schoolchildren in Zucht v. King. In Zucht, the Court denied a due process claim brought under the Fourteenth Amendment challenging the constitutionality of city ordinances that prevented unvaccinated children from attending school. The Court relied heavily on the precedent established by Jacobson, concluding that the states’ police powers allow for the implementation of vaccine mandates and that states may delegate this authority to local municipalities. Justice Brandeis also noted that these local ordinances conferred “only that broad discretion required for the protection of the public health.”

Vaccination mandates have also survived recent legal challenges. Although the statutory landscape and constitutional jurisprudence have changed since Jacobson and Zucht, courts continue to rely on these precedents and grant substantial deference to the states’ power to protect public health. Courts have also rejected cases that challenge vaccine mandates under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, concluding that the constitution does not require states to offer religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. In Phillips v. City of New York, the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld New York’s public school vaccine requirements and rejected claims that the religious liberties eclipsed the state’s power to prevent the spread of disease. According to the 2nd Circuit’s ruling, free exercise of religion is subordinate to the states’ interest in protecting public health.

Connecticut’s anti-vaccine groups have repeatedly claimed that public health mandates such as vaccine requirements are unconstitutional. According to these organizations, vaccine mandates are totalitarian, unamerican measures that infringe upon civil liberties and human rights. However, the reality is that vaccine requirements are as American as apple pie. For more than 100 years, courts have upheld the power of states and local municipalities to mandate vaccination to protect public health. Any person or organization that claims otherwise is lying.

Kelsey Mullane is a resident of Branford. She is a co-founder of The Social Justice Movement (IG: @thesjmovement) and is fully vaccinated.