Be Sincere When We Unmask Our Objections to School Mask Mandates | Catholic National Register
COMMENT: Deference to the sincerity of religious belief is a precious thing. Religious exemptions sought for secular rather than religious reasons obscure the issues.
I have seven of my 10 children who still live at home. With a lot of help with the tuition, I am able to send them all to private religious schools. – four are in an independent Christian high school, three in my local Catholic parish school. Shortly before the start of the school year, the health commissioner of my state mandated face masks for all K-12 schools, Public and private.
I don’t like my kids wearing masks all day at school. My older children received the COVID-19 vaccine. Why should they wear a mask at school when they don’t have to wear one elsewhere? Young children have not been affected by the coronavirus at the same rate or to the same extent as adults. Why insist on masks for the little ones? And then I worry about the effect of wearing masks on learning, social interaction and even the mental and physical health of my children. I’m not a fervent libertarian at all, but it sounds like a bad case of exaggerated by the government to impose restrictions all schools. Shouldn’t the administrators of the private schools and the parents of the pupils decide the matter themselves?
My state’s school mask mandate allows parents with religious objections to request reasonable accommodation. I spent several days reflecting – and praying – about my concerns about children wearing masks. And I concluded that none of my objections came from my Catholic faith. My parish school sent a standard letter prepared by the diocese for parents who wanted to request 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, a person who otherwise claims a sincere religious objection to wearing masks at school because of their personal religious beliefs can use this form to request a reasonable accommodation. ”
I spoke to the children about my decision not to seek accommodation of the mask mandate. They understood and accepted. Many families of their classmates took advantage of the order’s religious accommodation.
I love the families in my school communities. I hope they gave it some thought before opposing the mask mandate for their children. And yet I can’t help but wonder: while there are many other arguments against mask warrants, what precisely are the religious reasons for opposing the wearing of masks by their children?
Resurrection School, a Catholic parish school in Michigan, filed a trial last year, seeking a court order exempting the school from its state mask mandate, which ignored religious objections. School officials said the mandate interfered with the school’s ability to deliver education according to its Christian beliefs. Their complaint stated:
In accordance with the teachings of the Catholic faith, Resurrection School believes that every human being has dignity and is made in the image and likeness of God. Unfortunately, a mask protects our humanity. Masks also make us antisocial. They interfere with relationships. As the Catholic faith teaches, we are relational beings. And our existence as relational beings points to the Holy Trinity. A mask disrupts this essential part of the Catholic faith, and it disrupts the teaching of young children for these and other reasons.
Many Catholics agree with their claims about the dignity of the human person and our nature as social beings, but come to different conclusions about wearing a mask.
Courts rarely question the sincerity of a person’s stated religious belief. A panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected Resurrection School is asking to be exempt from the state mask mandate. Treat the state mask requirement as “neutral and generally applicable” since it applied to students of all schools, court scrutiny was limited and respectful of the government. The panel was quick to note that it was not questioning the sincerity of the school’s objections – at least not directly.
“We do not question the sincerity of the complainants’ beliefs that wearing a mask in class violates their Catholic faith,” the majority wrote. A footnote in the notice, however, raises some suspicion. “Complainants’ objections to masks are admittedly puzzling and at times stray from secular rather than religious concerns. Nonetheless, a complainant’s religious beliefs do not need to be acceptable, logical, consistent, or understandable to others to merit First Amendment protection.
Government officials and the courts should take a hands-off approach when it comes to guessing the religious belief of a person who opposes it. This is especially important for religious minorities whose beliefs are not widely held, let alone well understood. But keep these words in mind in the notice’s footnote in School of the Resurrection: “The objections of the complainants… drift towards 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 dropped if people seek exemptions and accommodations for reasons that are motivated more by politics, science, or education than religious belief.
Andrea Picciotti Bayer is the director of Conscience project.