Q: What are some of the legal, ethical, and moral issues related to government or employer vaccine mandates?

The question of vaccine mandates is not a new one in the United States. In fact, it’s something that has been considered by the government and its court system for more than 100 years.  As early as 1905, the US Supreme Court ruled that local governments could require vaccination of its citizens.[1]  A few years later, the Court ruled that Supreme Court says states can prohibit unvaccinated students from attending school.[2]  While these are relatively old cases, the Court has re-affirmed the basic validity of them a number of times since then, most recently in the 1990s.[3]

Given the development of the law since World War II and the importance of informed consent in medical treatment, it is highly unlikely that the Court would allow compulsory vaccinations of all citizens.  Lower courts, however, have frequently upheld the requirement of vaccinations for access to various public services and employment opportunities.  It is very likely the courts will come to the same results for use of public transportation, airlines, and attendance at public events.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently ruled that private employers may condition employment on vaccination status, and federal courts so far have agreed with that point of view.[4, 5, 6]  Under federal disability and religious non-discrimination statutes, employers do have an obligation to consider medical and religious exemption requests, and consider alternate accommodations that can preserve safety in the workplace, such as the wearing of masks in the presence of others and regular Covid testing.  Such accommodations will probably not be justified for positions that involve frequent contact with the public, especially health care positions that serve individuals with weakened physical conditions or compromised immune systems.

The question of the moral and ethical framework of required vaccines may be a little more complicated and nuanced than the legal landscape.  Many Adventists and Christians bristle at the notion of the imposition or mandate of physical treatments or limitations on people who are not yet sick.  Some believe that rights of conscience and religious freedom should be raised in opposition to required vaccinations, whether by employer or by government.  It is not unreasonable to seek accommodation from employers where possible if masking and distancing and testing can keep others safe.  But where this is not reasonably possible, it is not fair or right to expose others to physical threats because of your reservations about the vaccine.

Neither Adventist nor Protestants more generally have believed that religious freedom is an absolute right.  Religious freedom is not exempt from the limits on rights generally –that your rights end where your neighbor’s physical health, safety, or well-being begins.  This principle has its roots in the teachings of Jesus Christ and Paul, who both wrote about the importance of love for one’s neighbors,[7] which is specifically connected to doing them no “wrong” or “harm.”[8]  When Christ sent the healed lepers to be declared clean by the priests, he endorsed the quarantine system that the Jews had inherited from Old Testament law.  In that system, those that could expose the community to risk of physical infection had their freedom of movement and access to society curtailed.[9]

Response by Nichols Miller, JD, PhD; Andrews University Seminary Professor of Church History; Director, International Religious Liberty Institute

  1. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905).
  2. Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174 (1922).
  3. Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Dep’t of Health, 497 U.S. 261 (1990) (feeding tube); Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995) (drug testing of students).
  4. https://www.eeoc.gov/wysk/what-you-should-know-about-covid-19-and-ada-rehabilitation-act-and-other-eeo-laws#D
  5. Bridges, et al v. Houston Methodist Hospital et al
  6. Docket No. 4:21-cv-01774 (S.D. Tex. Jun 01, 2021).
  7. Matt. 22:39; Rom. 13:9.
  8. Rom. 13:10.
  9. Luke 17:11-14.

Note:  The Public Affairs and Religious Liberty (PARL) office at the NAD and Unions are available to assist with requests for personal religious exemptions.  Click the button to read the guidance from the NAD.