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Mason mother asks school district for religious exemption to mask mandate. District says no.

Mask requirement protest at Mason City Hall
Posted at 9:40 AM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 09:59:12-04

MASON, Mich. — After Mason Public Schools voted last week to require masks for teachers, staff and students regardless of vaccination status, one board member resigned and parent Bethany Walter wrote a letter asking that her two children be exempted from the requirement for religious reasons.

The district said no.

Bethany Walter

"When I sent that file for religious exemption in, they denied it," Walter said. "It was pretty much the blanket statement that seems to be the response for every single person who's filing that right now."

Mason Public Schools declined to comment on the matter, referring questions to their legal counsel, Thrun Law. The law firm did not return calls or emails.

James Hodge

But James Hodge, director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University, said these sorts of decisions are happening all across the country "and they are leading to some very profound issues."

Walter feels her children's religious freedoms are being threatened by the district's mask requirement.

"It comes out of 2 Corinthians 3...hold on let me go down here...verse 16," Walter said. "'But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.'"

Walter was joined by others in the community at a protest Friday morning at Mason City Hall.

Parents gathered at City Hall to protest the school district's mask requirement

"We want choices as parents," said Laura Peiffer, a Mason mother of seven.

"Yeah, I get people want to have their kids be safe in school. I understand that," Mason mother Jessica Ormsbee said. "Then you guys can wear masks, but it should be our choice to make it safe for our children as well."

"It should be our right as parents to choose what we think is best for our kids," Walter said.

Jessica Ormsbee's son

But courts are weighing the rights they're asserting against public health interests. Masks offer some protection to the people wearing them but lots of protection for the other people around them and masking up is a much more effective strategy when everyone does it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask in school buildings.

Last week, in the federal case Resurrection School v. Hertel, a three-judge panel from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the Lansing Catholic school's arguments that the state's mask order last year violated the free exercise or equal protection clauses of the Constitution. The school's attorneys have said they plan to appeal.

Church of the Resurrection school in Lansing
Church of the Resurrection school in Lansing

"What you're seeing in regard to these challenges are assertions that these sort of general mask mandates somehow infringe on or interfere with a person's free exercise interest to basically participate in religious-related activities as they would like," Hodge said. "These arguments are falling flat on courts like the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, here, when they're not based on anything other than a general application of a mask mandate to schools or other environments.”

So, do mask requirements set by school districts infringe upon First Amendment rights to freely exercise religion? In general, no, he said.

"Really what it boils down to is this. Generally applicable provisions designed to protect the public's health are not what the court views as tripping points on First Amendment free exercise rights. Your free exercise rights don't include some general objection to the fact that an applicable provision designed to protect public health and safety somehow minorly interferes with your religious practice," Hodge said.

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Mason, Leslie

Neighborhood Reporter

Hannah McIlree