Oct. 12, 2021 -- President Joe Biden’s announcement in September that large companies will soon be required to mandate COVID-19 vaccines or weekly testing for employees set off a domino effect of legal challenges in various states.

Court cases began to crop up even before that when mask mandates came into play. And while the president’s proposed mandates won’t be law until the government finishes crafting the language, Republican officials around the country have already promised to sue.

In cases that have actually reached a judge, the pro-mandate camp is so far sweeping the floor. But why?

“The legal question is: Are you violating the rights of an individual, and if so, does the state have a really good reason for doing it?” said George J. Annas, JD, a Boston University School of Public Health professor of health law, ethics, and human rights.

A precedent was set with a nearly 120-year-old Supreme Court case, Annas said. In 1904, Jacobson v. Massachusetts established the right to require vaccination against smallpox or face a $5 fine. Similarly, Biden’s proposed mandate would fine employers up to $13,600 per violation.

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

“No one is going to hold you down and get a vaccine,” he says. “Most mandates give you the chance to get tested regularly, [which] would be more of a pain than getting the shot.”

In general, employers are free to require employees be vaccinated, and schools have been mandating vaccines for measles and other diseases for years. But Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday issued an executive order that prohibits any business or other entity from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, which he said he’d withdraw if state lawmakers pass a similar permanent law.

Mask mandates are, in some ways, even easier to impose, Annas said. These requirements allow people to take part in certain activities, such as in-person schooling. Like vaccines, people cannot be forced to comply, but they can be excluded from partaking.

“Mask mandates allow you to be part of doing something. You’re not going to be forced to put on a mask,” Annas said. “But they can say ‘Your child will not come to school without a mask.’”

Legal scholars also say the case for religious exemption is likely not strong enough to win in court. One religious concern that has circulated is that fetal cell lines developed from aborted cells were used to produce the Johnson & Johnson shot. But most leaders from faiths across the board have come out in favor of the vaccine. Pope Francis called getting vaccinated against COVID-19 an “act of love.”

In a 1944 case, Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “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.”

Annas predicts, “As long as COVID-19 is still a problem, the cases will rule in favor of the mandates.”

Below is a list of previous and ongoing court challenges related to vaccine and mask mandates nationwide:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court upheld rulings of lower courts in favor of Indiana University's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees and students.
  • In New York City, U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil rejected a request to temporarily block the vaccine mandate that the city began enforcing for Department of Education employees. She said the lawsuit didn’t meet requirements of irreparable harm, likelihood of success, or public interest.
  • Five Los Angeles County employees have filed a lawsuit alleging the vaccine mandate for county workers is unconstitutional. An executive order was issued Aug. 4 requiring the county's employees to provide proof of vaccination against COVID-19.
  • A group of United Airlines employees filed a lawsuit against the airline over its vaccine mandate, saying the company’s policy has harmed their livelihoods.
  • A federal judge is considering whether New York health care workers can have religious exemptions from vaccination. On Sept. 14, U.S. District Judge David Hurd issued a restraining order preventing the state from sanctioning a facility that honored requests for religious exemptions, and he is expected to make a final ruling this week.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned mask mandates at Florida schools, saying they violated constitutional freedoms. A group of 11 families have 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 struck down the state’s ban on mask mandates for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • An Arkansas circuit court judge issued a preliminary injunction against a state ban on mask mandates. The ban was being challenged by two lawsuits, including one from an Arkansas school district where more than 900 staff and students were quarantining because of a coronavirus outbreak.
  • An Arizona superior court judge ruled Arizona’s school mask mandate ban violated the state Constitution.
  • An Oklahoma judge ruled in favor of parents and the Oklahoma State Medical Association that sued to block Oklahoma Senate Bill 658, which forbids schools from imposing mask mandates.
  • An Iowa U.S. District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order to put a stop to a mask mandate ban after several parents of students with disabilities said their children were being denied equal access to education.
  • A Tennessee U.S. district judge ruled in favor of two students and issued a temporary restraining order against the governor’s mask mandate ban. "Plaintiffs have identified ways that they have been excluded from participating in school programs and activities, including from physical education classes, and socializing with their peers when within the school buildings and at lunch," the judge wrote.
  • Lawyers with Disability Rights Texas, who filed the first federal lawsuit over the ban in mid-August, say Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates puts students with disabilities at risk.

Show Sources

Justia: “Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).”

George J. Annas, JD, professor of health law, ethics, and human rights, Boston University School of Public Health.

Legal Information Institute: “Prince v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Jurist: “Supreme Court upholds Indiana University’s vaccine mandate.”

KATU: “Federal judge deals blow to vaccine mandate for NYC teachers,” “Vaccine mandate for NYC educators survives court challenge.”

ABC7: “Five Los Angeles County employees sue over vaccine mandate, alleging it's unconstitutional.”

ABC News: “Why lawsuits against COVID-19 vaccine mandates will likely fail: Experts.”

The Wall Street Journal: “Religious Exemptions to Vaccine Mandates Tested in New York Case.”

CBS News: “Florida's Board of Education to consider possible punishments for districts enforcing mask mandates.”

WSPA: “Federal judge says South Carolina can’t enforce school mask mandate ban.”

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “Judge finds law on masks illegal on several fronts.”

AZCentral: “In sweeping ruling, Arizona judge finds ban on school mask mandates and other laws in budget unconstitutional.”

State of Oklahoma: “Enrolled Senate Bill No. 658.”

Des Moines Register: “Iowa schools can again mandate masks after a federal judge temporarily blocks law.”

The Hill: “Judge blocks Tenn. governor's order allowing students to opt out of mask mandates.”

The Dallas Morning News: “Disability Rights Texas files federal lawsuit against Gov. Abbott over school mask mandate ban.”

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