The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose decisions are binding in Ohio, recently ruled in , , Case No. 20-2256 (CA 6, Aug 23, 2021) that a Michigan face mask requirement does not violate an individual’s religious freedom.
This case originated when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) issued several orders requiring all students from kindergarten through fifth grade to wear a mask at school. The orders were subsequently amended to include several exemptions including for people who could not medically tolerate a face mask, people swimming, and people eating or drinking at certain locations.
Later, in June, MDHHS rescinded most of its pandemic orders, including the mask requirement. However, a Lansing Catholic school and two of its parents had already initiated a lawsuit, claiming the mandate violated the free exercise of religion. The school argued the mandate interfered with its sincerely held religious beliefs because it prevented the school’s students from “partaking fully in a Catholic education.” One parent argued that the requirement interfered with his children’s ability to engage in Catholic religious teachings because wearing a mask negatively affected focus. The other parent argued that her child could not wear a face mask due to respiratory issues, which the child’s pediatrician determined were not severe enough for a medical exemption.
The Sixth Circuit Court stated that while it did not question the sincerity of plaintiffs’ belief that wearing a face mask violates their Catholic faith, it concluded that the MDHHS face mask requirement was neutral and of general applicability because it applied to all students. The court added that the requirement was not “riddled with exemptions,” because exemptions in the MDHHS orders were narrow and discrete. The court noted that many of the exemptions were inherently incompatible with wearing a mask, including medical intolerance, swimming, and eating and drinking. Additionally, these exemptions were available regardless of religious belief. For instance, all students could remove a mask for eating and drinking. Finally, the court stated that the face mask requirement was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest – controlling the spread of COVID-19.
The plaintiffs have requested an en banc hearing. If granted, the issue would be reheard by all the judges of the Sixth Circuit Court, instead of just the three judge panel who issued the original decision. OSBA will continue to provide updates on the case as they are available. In the meantime, the case serves as an early example of how courts may look at the issue of religious exemptions from face mask mandates.