Why Vaccine and Mask Mandates Hold Up in Court

OCTOBER 12, 2021 – President Joe Biden’s announcement in September that large companies will soon be required to release COVID-19 vaccines or conduct weekly employee testing has led to a domino effect of legal challenges in various states.

Court cases began to emerge even earlier when mask mandates came to light. And while the president’s proposed mandates won’t be law until the government has finished crafting the language, Republican officials across the country have already promised to file a lawsuit.

In cases that have already reached a judge, the pro-mandatory camp is sweeping the floor thus far. but why?

“The legal question is: Are individual rights being violated, and if so, does the state really have a good reason to do so?” said George C. Anas, MD, of the Boston University School of Public Health, is a professor of health law, ethics, and human rights.

Anas said a precedent set a nearly 120-year-old case before the Supreme Court. In 1904, Jacobson v. Massachusetts established the right to demand a smallpox vaccination or face a $5 fine. Likewise, Biden’s proposed mandate would fine employers up to $13,600 for each violation.

Most COVID-19 vaccine mandates come with a choice for individuals: get vaccinated or get tested, Anas says.

“No one will pressure you to get a vaccine,” he says. “Most authorizations give you the opportunity to get tested regularly, [which] It would be more painful than getting the shot.”

In general, employers are free to require employees to be vaccinated, and schools have mandated vaccinations for measles and other diseases for years. But Texas Governor Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order prohibiting any company or other entity from ordering COVID-19 vaccinations, which he said he would withdraw if state lawmakers passed a similar permanent law.

Anas said that mask mandates are, in some ways, easier to enforce. These requirements allow people to participate in certain activities, such as personal education. Like vaccinations, people cannot be forced to comply, but they can be excluded from participating.

“Mask mandates allow you to be a part of doing something. You don’t have to wear a mask,” Anas said. “But they can say, ‘Your child will not come to school without a mask.’”

Legal scholars also say the religious exemption case is likely not to be strong enough to win in court. One religious concern that has been circulating is that the strains of embryonic cells developed from the aborted cells have been used to produce the Johnson & Johnson potion. But most leaders of all faiths supported the vaccine. Pope Francis has described vaccination against COVID-19 as a “labour of love”.

In the 1944 case, Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “the right to exercise religion freely does not include the freedom to expose society or a child to contagious disease, ill health, or death.”

Anas predicts, “As long as COVID-19 remains a problem, the issues will rule in the states’ favour.”

The following is a list of past and ongoing judicial challenges related to nationwide vaccine and mask mandates:

  • The US Supreme Court has upheld lower court rulings in favor of Indiana University state on the COVID-19 vaccine for staff and students.
  • In New York City, U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Viscusel rejected a request to temporarily block the vaccine authorization that the city had begun to impose on Department of Education employees. She said the lawsuit did not meet the requirements for irreparable harm, likelihood of success, or the public interest.
  • Five Los Angeles County employees have filed a lawsuit claiming that mandates for a vaccine to county workers are unconstitutional. An executive order was issued on August 4 requiring county employees to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
  • A group of United Airlines employees is suing the airline over its vaccine mandate, saying the airline’s policy has harmed their livelihoods.
  • A federal judge is considering whether health care workers in New York can obtain religious exemptions from vaccination. On September 14, US District Judge David Heard issued a restraining order preventing the state from imposing penalties on a facility that fulfills requests for religious exemptions, and is expected to issue a final ruling this week.
  • Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has banned mask mandates in Florida schools, saying they violate constitutional freedoms. A group of 11 families has filed a federal lawsuit saying the ban violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by putting vulnerable children at risk.
  • A federal judge in South Carolina has overturned a state ban on mask mandates for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • An Arkansas circuit court judge issued a preliminary injunction against the state’s ban on mask mandates. The ban has been challenged by two lawsuits, one from a school district in Arkansas where more than 900 employees and students have been quarantined due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • An Arizona Supreme Court judge has ruled that banning school mask authorization in Arizona violates the state constitution.
  • An Oklahoma judge ruled in favor of parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Association, which sued to block Oklahoma Senate Bill 658, which bans schools from enforcing mask mandates.
  • An Iowa District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to end the mask authorization ban after several parents of students with special needs said their children were denied equal education.
  • A Tennessee district judge has ruled in favor of two students and issued a temporary restraining order against the state’s ban on masks. “The plaintiffs identified ways in which they were excluded from participating in school programs and activities, including from physical education classes, and from socializing with peers when on school premises and at lunch,” the judge wrote.
  • Texas disability rights lawyers, who filed the first federal lawsuit over the ban in mid-August, say Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates puts students with disabilities at risk.

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