May 2021 Church & State Magazine | AU Bulletin

A Catholic school in Michigan has no right to receive an exemption from a statewide mask mandate, Americans United and allied groups have told a federal appeals court.

Resurrection School, a Catholic institution in Lansing, doesn’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. The order applies equally to all schools in the state; it’s binding on public schools and private schools, be they religious or secular.

In a court filing, the school’s leaders argued, “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.”

Americans United says the school’s position is legally wrong. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in late March before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, AU 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. Michigan’s rules pass that neutrality test.

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.” (Resurrection School v. Hertel)