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The arguments against mask mandates are plentiful. Those opposed to the public-health measure say it restricts people’s freedom, represents government intrusion and — falsely — that it distorts science.
Officials at a Catholic school in Michigan are making a less-common claim: Forcing students to wear masks, they say, is a violation of religious freedom.
In a case set to be heard Wednesday, attorneys for Resurrection School in Lansing and two parents will tell the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that Catholic doctrine holds that every person is made in God’s image.
“Unfortunately, a mask shields our humanity,” the school argued in its lawsuit. “And because God created us in His image, we are masking that image.”
A spokeswoman for Michigan’s Department of Attorney General declined to comment on the merits of the case, which was first reported in October by the Lansing State Journal. “Our arguments will be laid out before the court, which is the proper venue to comment,” the spokeswoman, Lynsey Mukomel, said in a statement.
Michigan does not mandate that students and teachers wear masks in schools, although it did so last fall when Resurrection School filed suit. But the school’s legal challenge could set precedent around mask rules and religious exercise at a time of contentious national debate about coronavirus restrictions.
While some have argued that mask mandates interfere with religious services, the most high-profile questions about religious liberty during the pandemic have centered on government limits on worship attendance. Past legal cases about religion and apparel in schools largely have revolved around teachers and students wanting to wear a symbol of their faith, like a hijab or a crucifix necklace, as opposed to wanting to avoid donning something.
Resurrection School thinks mask-wearing interferes with the institution’s mission of giving its students a Catholic education. The school’s lawsuit argued that in addition to physically blocking God’s image, face coverings make people anti-social and interfere with relationships. The Catholic faith teaches that people are relational beings and that these relationships mirror the relationship between God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit — believed to be three people, but one God.
“A mask is disruptive to this essential element of the Catholic faith, and it is disruptive to the teaching of young children for these and other reasons,” the school concluded.
Resurrection School added that some students experience discomfort and difficulty breathing and speaking when they wear masks. In addition, the school argued, wearing masks “conveys the message that the wearer has surrendered his or her freedom to the government.”
In December, Judge Paul Maloney of the Western District of Michigan denied the school’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would have banned enforcement of the state’s mask ordinance for kindergarten through fifth-grade students at religious schools. Resurrection School notified the court of its intention to appeal two days later, court records show.
The idea that human beings are created in God’s image is central to Catholicism and several other faiths. It is understood to be an affirmation that every person has intrinsic value, said M. Therese Lysaught, a professor at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at Loyola University Chicago. She said the concept requires that believers honor God’s image in other people and act as God’s image themselves.
Sincerely arguing that wearing a mask obscures God’s image would also require contending that women shield God’s image when they wear veils to Mass or that surgeons do so when they operate, Lysaught said. There is a biblical basis for banning men from wearing head coverings while praying so as not to obscure God’s image, but Lysaught said that teaching is limited to a specific circumstance.
Relationality, too, is about more than seeing a person’s full face, Lysaught said. She argued that staying true to the school’s stated beliefs — that people are created in God’s image and humans are relational — would require supporting mask-wearing for others’ protection.
“Because we value the image of God in every other person and because we want to do everything we can to promote the life and health and flourishing of every other human person,” Lysaught said, “we will wear masks to do that.”
Regardless of how closely Resurrection School’s arguments hew to Catholic teaching, courts concern themselves only with whether religious beliefs are sincerely held. The district-court judge seemed to accept in his ruling that the plaintiff’s beliefs were sincere, said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
The judge still denied the school’s request to stop enforcement of the mask mandate because he found the rule was neutrally applied and did not target religious schools. But Gordon said some recent court rulings seem to favor a more rigorous requirement that laws limiting religious exercise must address a compelling government interest.
That fluctuation, Gordon said, makes the outcome of Resurrection School’s appeal uncertain.
“The law seems to be changing, even as we speak,” she said. “And there are very serious challenges to the standard of review that has been in place for the past 30 years.”
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