Let’s Be Sincere When We Unmask Our Objections to School Mask Mandates

COMMENTARY: Deference to the sincerity of religious conviction is a precious thing. Religious exemptions sought for secular instead of religious reasons cloud the issues.

Photo illustration of a student mandated to wear a mask while in class.
Photo illustration of a student mandated to wear a mask while in class. (photo: JHDT Productions/Shutterstock)

I’ve got seven of my 10 children still living at home. With a lot of tuition assistance, I’m able to send them all to private religious schools four are at an independent Christian secondary school, three at my local Catholic parochial school. Shortly before the beginning of the school year, my state’s health commissioner mandated face masks for all K-12 schools, public and private. 

Ugh.   

I don’t like having my kids wear masks all day at school. My older kids have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Why should they have to wear a mask at school when they are not required to wear one elsewhere? Younger children have not been afflicted with the coronavirus at the same rate or the same extent as adults. Why insist on masks for the little ones? And then I worry about the effect of wearing masks on my children’s learning, social interaction and even mental and physical health. I am not at all a staunch libertarian, but it feels like a nasty case of government overreach to impose restrictions on all schools. Shouldn’t private school administrators and school parents decide the issue themselves?

On the other hand, according to new data from the US Centers for Disease Control, Covid outbreaks are far more likely to happen in schools that don’t require students to wear masks – 3.5 times more likely, in the case of a study in Arizona. I’m not in a position to dispute those statistics, which despite the CDC's tendency to put a political spin on its findings sound fairly conclusive.

My state’s school mask mandate permits parents with religious objections to request a reasonable accommodation. I spent several days thinking – and praying – about my concerns about the kids wearing masks. And I concluded that none of my objections derive from my Catholic faith. My parish school sent along a form letter prepared by the diocese for parents who wanted to seek a religious exemption. The following guidance was written at the top of the form: “The Catholic faith does not provide a basis for such an objection. However, an individual who otherwise asserts a sincerely held religious objection to wearing masks in school based upon their personal religious beliefs may use this form to request a reasonable accommodation.” 

I talked to the children about my decision not to seek an accommodation from the mask mandate. They understood and agreed. Many of their classmates’ families have availed themselves of the order’s religious accommodation. 

I love the families of my school communities. I trust that they put thought into the matter before objecting to the mask mandate for their children. And yet I can’t help wondering: While there are many other arguments against mask mandates, what precisely are the religious reasons for objecting to their children wearing masks?  

Resurrection School, a Catholic parochial school in Michigan, filed a lawsuit last year, seeking a court order exempting the school from their state mask mandate, which did not accommodate religious objections. School officials claimed that the mandate interfered with the school’s ability to deliver instruction according to its Christian beliefs. Their complaint, which includes important points from Catholic teaching regarding human dignity and our nature as relational being, asserted:

 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. Masks also make us anti-social. They interfere with relations. As the Catholic faith teaches, we are relational beings. And our existence as relational beings points to the Holy Trinity. 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. 

These assertions are no doubt made in good faith, even if many Catholics like me come to a different conclusion about mask wearing.

Courts rarely question whether a person’s stated religious belief is sincere. A panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected Resurrection School’s request to be exempted from the state mask mandate. Treating the state’s mask requirement as “neutral and generally applicable” since it applied to students at all schools, the court’s review was limited and deferential to the government. The panel was quick to note that it did not question the sincerity of school’s objections — at least not directly. 

“We do not question the sincerity of Plaintiffs’ beliefs that wearing a mask in the classroom violates their Catholic faith,” wrote the majority. A footnote in the opinion, however, raises some suspicions. “Plaintiffs’ objections to masks admittedly are confusing and at times, digress into secular, rather than religious concerns. Nevertheless, a plaintiff’s religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.” 

Government officials and courts should take a hands-off approach when it comes to second-guessing an objecting person’s religious belief. Doing so is particularly important for religious minorities whose beliefs are not widely held, much less well understood. But bear in mind those words in the footnote of the opinion in Resurrection School: “Plaintiffs’ objections ... digress into secular rather than religious concerns.”

The danger is clear. Deference to the sincerity of religious conviction is a precious thing. And it can easily be abandoned if people seek exemptions and accommodations for reasons that are more driven by politics, science or education than by religious belief. 

This column was updated after publication to include the information from the CDC regarding mask wearing in schools.

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

This Sunday, I’ll Be Going to Church. Will You Join Me?

“The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.” [CCC 2181]