Catholic school lawsuit claims mask mandate shields ‘God’s image and likeness’

Mask mandates in schools have become a political and social debate, but the rules are now becoming a religious flashpoint after a Michigan Catholic school claimed that the requirement interferes with "God’s image and likeness."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati is hearing the appeal from the Resurrection School in Lansing, Michigan, and two parents after they filed their original lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in October 2020. In December, the court denied the school’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the mask mandate. The school filed an appeal two days later.

In the original lawsuit filed, the school argued against the state-imposed mask mandate on religious grounds, saying it ultimately interferes with Catholic education. 

"Unfortunately, a mask shields our humanity," the lawsuit read. "And because God created us in His image, we are masking that image."

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School officials also argued the possible social implications of face coverings. 

"Masks also make us anti-social," the lawsuit said. "They interfere with relations. As the Catholic faith teaches, we are relational beings." 

Two separate parents, Christopher Mianecki and Stephanie Smith, joined the lawsuit, saying their children have had difficulties with wearing masks such as breathing and the inability to focus in class. 

The school also argued that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed sweeping, unbearable restrictions at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Her actions were deemed unconstitutional by the Michigan State Supreme Court in October 2020. She then started issuing directives in accordance with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

According to FOX 2, Republican lawmakers killed a law Wednesday that Whitmer used to impose COVID-19 restrictions. A separate law remains in place. It lets a governor declare an emergency, but it cannot last for longer than 28 days without legislative approval.

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Michigan eventually dropped its mask mandate, but the lawsuit highlights the tug-of-war between religious leaders and health officials over COVID-19 restrictions across the country. 

State or local restrictions on indoor worship to prevent the spread of COVID-19 had been in place for most of the pandemic. Most religious organizations had followed the restrictions, but some churches fought them on grounds that they violated constitutionally protected freedom of religious expression.

The U.S. Supreme Court once struck down the outright ban in a case brought by California churches, although it left in place capacity limits and a ban on singing or chanting before Gov. Gavin Newsom virtually lifted all restrictions last month. 

The Supreme Court has also dealt with a string of cases in which religious groups have challenged coronavirus restrictions impacting worship services. While early in the pandemic the court sided with state officials over the objection of religious groups, that changed following the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last September and her replacement by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Regarding masks in schools, with COVID-19 cases on the rise and the more transmissible delta variant fueling the surge, school officials across the country have a tough decision to make as the academic year begins in a few weeks for many districts nationwide.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended universal masking in schools, even for those who are vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month recommended mask-wearing indoors only for students and staff who are not fully vaccinated.

In some conservative states, lawmakers have banned districts from requiring masks despite outcry from medical professionals. Schools are weighing a variety of plans to manage junior high and middle school classrooms filled with both vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the fact that some states refuse to allow mask requirements "is just plain wrong." She said the organization has embraced recommendations from the CDC.

In Detroit public schools, everyone will likely be required to wear a mask unless an entire room is vaccinated. Officials are developing an identification system, perhaps by wearing lanyards, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said.

In Pittsburgh, administrators are proposing that all public school students and staff be required to wear masks indoors to protect younger students and because of "concerns around unknowns from the variant," spokeswoman Ebony R. Pugh said. Universal masking also protects the privacy of older students who have not been vaccinated, she said.

In Kansas, most schoolchildren and teachers will not be required to wear masks. The state’s largest district, Wichita, made masks optional starting July 6 and surveyed parents before announcing its reopening plan, said Wichita Public Schools spokeswoman Susan Arensman.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.