Responding to the announcement last Friday of a sweeping new mandate from the Biden administration requiring millions of American workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, Colorado Republican Party chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown fired back a volley of pointed if not exactly coherent words in opposition–including the one key word that gets thrown around so often in politics, by persons who know what the word means and those who do not–to CBS4’s Rick Sallinger.
The word in question is “unconstitutional.”
“I mean it’s absolutely unconstitutional. Joe Biden does not have the power to tell private business owners what to do with their employees,” she said.
As we discussed last Thursday ahead of the vaccine mandate’s formal announcement, it wasn’t that long ago when even most Republicans were uncontroversially in support of requiring vaccines for a range of childhood diseases. As recently as 2015 both Cory Gardner and Mike Coffman saw no political risk in endorsing mandatory vaccination for school-age children. As for the constitutionality of vaccine mandates?
In a timely in-depth story last week, Politico explains how The U.S. Supreme Court decided that question 115 years ago in the case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts:
The year was 1904, and when [Rev. Henning Jacobson’s] politically charged legal challenge to the $5 fine for failing to get vaccinated made its way to the Supreme Court, the justices had a surprise for Rev. Jacobson. One man’s liberty, they declared in a 7-2 ruling handed down the following February, cannot deprive his neighbors of their own liberty — in this case by allowing the spread of disease. Jacobson, they ruled, must abide by the order of the Cambridge board of health or pay the penalty.
“There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good,” read the majority opinion. “On any other basis, organized society could not exist with safety to its members. Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy.”
And that wasn’t the last ruling upholding the constitutionality of vaccine mandates:
In 1922, the Supreme Court further clarified in Zucht vs. King that a school system could refuse admission to a student not meeting vaccination requirements, and that this would not be in violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause for singling out a particular class of individuals, the National Constitution Center says on its website Constitution Daily.
Then, in 1944, in Prince vs. Massachusetts, the Supreme Court held that states may require vaccination regardless of a parent’s religious objection, making it clear that religious exemptions offered by states are elective, rather than mandated by the First Amendment, the Constitution Daily explains.
In short, there are words you can use to describe a vaccine mandate. “Unconstitutional” isn’t one. It’s not just factually wrong, it’s tragically ignorant of modern American history.
For generations of Americans in the 20th Century, vaccine mandates to attend school from preschool to university, not to mention as necessary to travel or to work in high-risk professions, were part of everyday life. The eradication of once-devastating epidemics of diseases like polio and smallpox taught a lesson to those generations that they never forgot, but relentless misinformation has chipped away at was once nearly universal consensus in recent years. The partisan politicization of the latter-day anti-vaxxer movement is a phenomenon we have witnessed here in Colorado over the last several years very clearly as local Republicans openly courted anti-vaxxer activists, and that embrace transitioned smoothly into the partisan political resistance to COVID-19 prevention measures.
The consequences of the partisan political backlash against what used to be one of the country’s greatest strengths, the ability to work together to overcome deadly diseases, are far-reaching. But to call what used to be considered our patriotic duty as Americans “unconstitutional” shows how far the reasoning that drives Republican rhetoric has degenerated.
This is the hubris that makes great nations weaker.