We’ll get back to property law next time, because in the last week, I’ve been very curious about the legality of mandating vaccinations. To catch everyone up, on Tuesday, April 9, New York City’s mayor ordered mandatory measles vaccinations for certain parts of the city. We live in Utah, with our own constituency. But like New York City, we have a broad swath of individuals choosing not to vaccinate themselves or their children. Is this legal? Could mandatory vaccinations happen in Utah?
Let’s go back in time to review some federal constitutional law. In Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 US 11 (1905), the United States Supreme Court upheld the Massachusetts’ authority to enforce compulsory vaccination. Why? The Court opined that if a public danger looms, the public’s freedoms are subordinated for the common good. It upheld the utilitarian view to mandate vaccinations. This means, simply, that a state can make laws forcing individuals to comply with state vaccination mandates if the mandate helps the greater good. Modern utilitarian laws include speed limits, illegal drug prohibitions, health inspection standards, and building permitting.
In 1922, the United States Supreme Court further allowed state schools to refuse admitting students without the vaccination requirements. It reasoned that students were not a protected class under the 14th Amendment and Equal Protection Clause. This case is fascinating, check it out: Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174 (1922).
In 1944, we go back to Massachusetts where the United States Supreme Court upheld Massachusetts’ requirement to vaccination children regardless of a parent’s religious objection because, quote, “the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.” I’m partial to 1940-50s era literature style (Steinbeck, Stegner, Wilder, etc.), and this case is great writing: Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944).
Like we’ve discussed before, there are state and federal laws and they mix and match somewhat complicatedly. How do these cases fit within Utah’s laws? The United States Supreme Court upheld that any state (such as Utah) can mandate vaccinations but does not force states to mandate vaccinations. This means Utah could mandate vaccinations if the mandate met the standards stated in the cases above. However, there are laws and then there is political sway. From my experience, Utah would seem to be a state that would not mandate vaccinations, but it still has the power to do so if there ever was an appropriate reason for such a mandate.
Until then, Utah has codified its student immunization exemptions under Utah Code Ann. § 53G-9-303. Utah vaccination exemptions can be for medical or personal and religious beliefs.
The parent or legal guardian of the child (1) must fill out the proper forms and (2) take the online immunization education module or must receive an in-person consultation and exemption form from the local health department.
Vaccinating children is controversial. Mandatory vaccinations are even more controversial. As always, my articles are meant to merely inform the discussions about relevant legal topics. I hope this information helps you form your opinion about the legality of mandatory vaccination.
Disclaimer. As always, my column is not legal advice, instead merely insight into the law and legal profession. If you have a general question about the law or legal profession, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 435.610.1431.