In 2015, California governor Jerry Brown signed California Senate Bill 277 into law. The bill eliminated “the exemption from existing specified immunization requirements based upon personal beliefs, but would allow exemption from future immunization requirements deemed appropriate by the State Department of Public Health for either medical reasons or personal beliefs.” Anti-vax contingents challenged the bill, and Dr. Bob Sears compared the mandate to Jews and the Holocaust. This comparison continues today, now with the COVID vaccine, and Talia Bracha Lavin and others point out the absurdity and cognitive disconnect inherent within such comparisons.
While I have not encountered, in my personal circles, individuals comparing the vaccine mandates to the Holocaust, I have encountered individuals who refuse to get the vaccination because they feel that the government should not mandate whether or not individuals should get vaccinated. When I went to school, I had to receive certain vaccinations to attend. When I went to college, I had to provide proof of vaccination. When I traveled to other countries, I had to have my vaccines up to date. Individuals traveling to the United States have to provide proof of COVID vaccination, yet citizens don’t have to provide anything. In fact, legal precedent points to the state’s ability to require individuals to get vaccinated.
In the early 1900s, Massachusetts had compulosry vaccination laws, and individuals who refused vaccination were subject to fines. With an outbreak of smallpox in 1902, Cambridge, MA, ordered people to get vaccinated or revaccinated. Henning Jacobson, a Cambridge pastor from Sweden, refused the vaccination based on his experiences with the smallpox vaccination in Sweden. Jacobson was fined, and he brought suit against the state and the law.
The Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 decision, that the law did not violate Jacobson’s Fourteenth Amendment rights. In the decision, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote, “in every well ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.” He continued, by stating that “[r]eal liberty for all could not exist under the operation of a principle which recognizes the right of each individual person to use his own [liberty], whether in respect of his person or his property, regardless of the injury that may be done to others.”
The court put the safety of the public at the forefront, and they noted “that the legislature of Massachusetts required the inhabitants of a city or town to be vaccinated only when, in the opinion of the Board of Health, that was necessary for the public health or the public safety.” In this manner, they upheld that the public good, the public health, was important and worth preserving. To do that, vaccination needed to occur to decrease the number of smallpox cases. To do that, vaccination needed to occur to keep people safe. To do that, vaccination needed to occur to preserve liberty.
Seventeen years following the Jacobson decision, the court heard another case, Zucht v. King. This case centered around an ordinance in San Antonio, TX, that required students, in order to attend public or private schools, to provide proof of their smallpox vaccination. Rosalyn Zucht sued the city on the grounds that no emergency existed to warrant the vaccination and that the ordinance infringed her liberties and access to an education. The court cited its precedence in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, pointing out that that case “had settled that it is within the police power of the state to provide for compulsory vaccination.”
Someone may ask, “So what? Those decisions focus on state laws, not national laws. Plus, my freedom outweighs the state telling me what to do. I’m a Christian, and I only serve God.” If that is the case, then let’s look at the theological angle to this discussion and see what Martin Luther said about the Black Plague and the public health crisis it induced during the sixteenth century. In 1527, Luther wrote a letter to Reverend Doctor Johann Hess about what a Christian should do during a pandemic.
Recall that Luther wrote this before the proliferation of vaccines in the Western world. Vaccines did not come into being in the Western world until the late 1700s, close to 300 years after Luther wrote his letter. Luther argues that preachers and public officials should remain steadfast in the face of the plague and must work for the safety and betterment of the community. If, as Luther states it, “enough preachers are available in one locality and they agree to encourage the other clergy to leave in order not to expose themselves needlessly to danger” it is not a sin for those to leave because the spiritual needs of the community will be met by others.
Luther argues that individuals, no matter their station, should not flee and leave others behind. Rather, they should help others in the time of need, help them survive the deadly plague ravaging the land because “we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.” Individuals must help others in time of need, and God provides “us with intelligence to guard and take good care of the body so that we can live in good health.” If we fail to adhere to this, and to serving others, we are in fact, as Luther puts it, “not trusting God but tempting him.”
Luther continues by pointing out that if a person ignores the “intelligence or medicine” available than that person, if he or she dies, essentially commits suicide because rather than taking care of the body with the available means the person knowingly places the body in harm’s way, opening the door for disease and death. Continuing this train of thought, Luther notes that it is one thing for an individual to deny themselves preventive measures, but when the person fails to protect their body and infect others with disease then the person “is thus responsible before God for his neighbor’s death and is a murderer many times over.”
When an individual does this, the person is like someone who sees a house burning in the city, in this case the plague, and instead of trying to extinguish the flames lets the fire rage, destroying everything it encounters. Luther points out that we must use medicine and intelligence to protect not just ourselves but those around us as well. We must fumigate and “shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence or has recovered, and act like a man who wants to help put out the burning city.” We must “avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” We are responsible for one another, and if we fail to adhere to basic intelligence and medicine we constantly place ourselves and others at risk of disease and death.
Essentially, the court echoed Martin Luther during the plague. They pointed to the need to protect the community, not put it at risk. They pointed to the fact that these measures exist in order to do just that, prevent the houses from burning to ashes. If, as a Christian, one adheres to Romans 13:4 when it comes to certain matters but doesn’t adhere to the same verse when it comes to the protection of ones self and of the community, then what does that say about the ways that we think about and interpret the Bible?
There is more to say, of course, but I will leave it at that for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.