Are School Attendance Vaccination Requirements Constitutional?

There was a lot of contentious debate in both the Arizona Senate and House this week regarding bills that have proposed that would add a religious exemption for school attendance vaccination requirements.

Much of the testimony from parents centered around their belief that public school vaccination requirements are unconstitutional, so I thought I’d take a deeper dive into that subject this week before I get to this week’s bill summary.

There are a couple flagship US Supreme Court cases that address school vaccine requirements.  The first case (from 1905) is called Jacobson v. Massachusetts, in which a guy named Henning Jacobson challenged Massachusetts law that required everybody to be vaccinated against Smallpox or face fine or imprisonment. 

Justice Marshall Harlan delivered the decision for a 7-2 majority, holding that the freedom of the individual must sometimes be subordinated to the common welfare.  The majority opinion rejected Jacobson's claim that the 14th Amendment gave him the right to refuse vaccination.  However, the court held that there needs to be exceptions for people with medical contra-indications. 

A later Supreme Court case (in 1922) called Zucht v. King directly addressed the constitutionality of school attendance vaccination requirements.  In that case, the Court held that a school system could refuse admission to a student who failed to receive a required vaccination.

In that case, San Antonio the family of Rosalyn Zucht challenged San Antonio’s ordinance requiring that students present a certificate of vaccination for smallpox before attending school (public or private).  Rosalyn’s parents were unwilling to vaccinate her, so she was excluded from both public and private schools in San Antonio.

The family argued that since smallpox wasn’t present in town at the time, there was no emergency requiring vaccination, and that she was deprived of liberty without due process of law by effectively making vaccination compulsory. The Texas state courts denied her claims, and the family appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Court found no reason to question the fairness with which the city ordinance was applied and found that the ordinance reflected the broad discretion needed by authorities to protect the public health.