On April 28, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed into law a bill eliminating the state’s religious exemption for mandatory school vaccinations. Three days later, a lawsuit was filed in federal court claiming the law violates the constitutional rights of three mothers — Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim — who refuse to have their children vaccinated for religious reasons.
Does it? Long-standing Supreme Court precedents suggest otherwise.
In 1905, Jacobson v. Massachusetts upheld a state law that empowered municipalities to mandate vaccinations. Writing for the 7-2 majority, Justice John Marshall Harlan declared that “a community has the right to protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members,” and concluded that the state law did not “invad(e) any right secured by the Federal Constitution.”
The Jacobson decision noted with approval that many states had made vaccination a condition for children to go to school, and 17 years later, in Zucht v. King, the court unanimously upheld a San Antonio ordinance providing that “no child or other person shall attend a public school or other place of education without having first presented a certificate of vaccination.”
Those decisions, predating the mid-20th-century federalization of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, did not specifically address a claim that state vaccination rules violate someone’s free exercise of religion.
The closest case involving such a claim is Prince v. Massachusetts, from 1944, which concerned a Jehovah’s Witness convicted of violating state child labor law by having her ward, a 9-year-old girl, distribute literature on the street in exchange for contributions. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that governmental authority to regulate the actions and treatment of children outweighed such parentally supervised religious activity.