There’s good news in America’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Growing numbers of Americans have been vaccinated, many schools are again offering in-person classes and some states are starting to loosen restrictions on gatherings.
But health experts say we’re not in the clear yet, and that’s why it’s important that Americans continue to follow some commonsense regulations, including wearing masks in spaces where lots of people gather.
Unfortunately, some religious groups are resisting mask mandates. In Michigan, for example, officials at Resurrection School, a Catholic institution in Lansing, don’t want to comply with a general order from state health officials that all people in the state who are at least 5 years old wear face masks whenever they are in a shared space with someone outside their household. This order applies equally to all schools in the state; it’s binding on public schools and private schools, be they religious or secular.
The school’s leaders have argued in court, “In accordance with the teachings of the Catholic faith, Resurrection School believes that every human has dignity and is made in God’s image and likeness. Unfortunately, a mask shields our humanity. And because God created us in His image, we are masking that image.”
In a friend-of-the-court brief filed last week before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Americans United and 13 religious and civil-rights organizations don’t dispute the sincerity of this religious claim but point out that in these extraordinary times, government may take steps to protect the health and safety of everyone, as long as its regulations are neutral and treat religious and secular entities alike, as Michigan’s rules do.
The brief traces the history of religious freedom in America, pointing out that the provision in the First Amendment that ensures the “free exercise” of religion “was never intended or originally understood to require religious exemptions from laws that protect public health or safety. Rather, the Clause was enacted to address a long history of governmental efforts to suppress particular religious groups based on disapproval of the groups or their beliefs.”
Concludes the brief, “The precious right of religious freedom should not be misused in a manner that jeopardizes the health of children and their family members.”
Indeed, it should not. We’re making real progress in tamping down the spread of the virus. This is exactly the wrong time to allow misguided interpretations of religious freedom to set us back.
P.S. Americans United’s Legal Department has filed 48 friend-of-the-court briefs in coronavirus-related cases across the country, urging courts not to grant demands for religious exemptions from public health orders. AU’s Public Policy Department has weighed in with letters to governors, legislators and other government officials, and we’ve made the case against special exemptions for religious groups in the media and other public forums. You can read about our work here.