Because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on public health, and based on both long-standing and more recent court decisions, our current view is that the various vaccine requirements being imposed and/or considered in school and workplace settings to address this disease would likely be held constitutional.
FACT SHEET: Vaccine and Mask Mandates
What have the courts said about vaccine mandates?
As far back as 1905, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case called Jacobson v. Massachusetts, upheld the authority of states to enforce mandatory vaccination laws on public health and safety grounds. As far as Covid-19 is concerned, courts have thus far also generally given government agencies broad authority to require vaccination in the interest of protecting public health. Most such mandates, however, probably require exemptions for medical reasons or to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs.
Vaccine mandates in the workplace.
In the employment setting, guidance has been issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that vaccine requirements in employment do not violate anti-discrimination laws so long as there are reasonable medical and religious exemptions. In addition, the only major court ruling to date has upheld a hospital’s right to require its employees to be vaccinated. If you belong to a union, however, you can contact them to see if there are any grounds under the collective bargaining agreement to object to any requirements.
Can my employer require me to get vaccinated if it is against my religious beliefs?
Depending on the nature of the job and whether it would pose an "undue hardship" on the employer, an employer may have an obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with sincerely held religious beliefs against being vaccinated. The nature of the accommodation and whether an exemption poses an undue hardship on the employer will often be very fact-specific. Individuals who feel they are being discriminated against in employment on this basis may file a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. This matter can also be brought to the employee's union if they are a member of one.
Can the state suspend or revoke my health care worker license if I refuse to get vaccinated?
While you may be subject to various disciplinary actions if you continue to be employed at a health care facility or otherwise interact with patients after the October 1 deadline for getting vaccinated, we do not believe the law authorizes the Department of Health to suspend or revoke your license if you refrain from continued health care employment or patient care where vaccination (or proof of medical exemption) is required.
Vaccine mandates in school.
Regarding schools, a federal appeals court recently upheld in the university setting a vaccine requirement with medical and religious exemptions. In the K-12 setting, schools have required for decades proof of certain vaccinations as a condition of enrollment, and those requirements have also been routinely upheld by the courts.
Is a school allowed to administer the vaccine without parental consent?
It depends on the child's age. RI General Law 23-4.6-1(a) allows minors aged 16 or older to consent to routine, emergency, medical or surgical care. If your child falls within that age range, the school could administer the vaccine if the teenager consented to receiving it.
For information about the privacy concerns raised by “vaccine passports,” read this blog post from the National ACLU.
Are vaccine mandates a violation of my rights?
Mask mandates in school.
As for requiring masks in school, we are not aware of any strong constitutional basis for challenging such a requirement. For example, courts have, with certain specific exceptions, generally upheld the legality of school dress codes. With the additional public health rationale behind masking policies, such a requirement is, in our view, also likely to be upheld as constitutional. Thus far, the only federal appellate court to rule on the subject of mask mandates in schools has supported that position.
Can the ACLU of RI help me?
If your complaint involves a private school or private employment, that is likely outside of our jurisdiction to review. For the most part, we are limited to cases involving governmental entities, not matters between private parties or institutions. In those circumstances, a private attorney could advise you whether there are any contractual or other grounds you may have for challenging these mandates.
In addition, the ACLU of RI is a small non-profit organization that relies on cooperating attorneys to handle our legal work. As a result, we are limited in the types and number of cases in which we can intervene. The ACLU of RI will, however, continue to review issues brought to our attention that raise civil liberties concerns during this pandemic, as we agree it is important to prevent government overreaching that departs from sound medical standards. If you believe your situation raises special issues not addressed here, you can email us with details at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All views expressed here are preliminary, so you are encouraged to consult with a private attorney if you wish to pursue a complaint.