From church to courts: religious mask exemptions explained
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (WTVF) – Mask exemptions continue to be a hotly debated issue, especially when based on religious beliefs. Not all districts honor these exemptions and some say it opens the door to legal battles with parents.
Just this week, Williamson County schools expanded their mask policy, but not before re-examining the issue of mask exemptions. Some council members argued that it was time to remove the exceptions to a policy that should apply to the entire district. Meanwhile, board member Dan Cash expressed his frustration by asking the question “how much are we going to step on the freedoms of these people?” “
The council leaned on their lawyer who suggested that it would be in the best interests of the district not to challenge parents who might turn around and sue to have their religious beliefs recognized. The board ultimately voted to keep religious exemptions, but raised the question of whether families were abusing the exemptions to avoid masks. Reverend Aaron Marble says he’s worried it’s become a lot less about Christ and more about culture.
Towards the end of last school year, parents in Williamson County were on Facebook to explain to each other about how to file a religious exemption request. Some parents replied that it was the best way out of wearing a mask, without medical exemption.
“It’s a backward mismanagement of what it means to be loyal,” Marble said.
Marble and his congregation at the historic Jefferson St. Baptist Missionary Church took incredible steps during the pandemic to keep their congregation close, but separate.
It took them 17 months to return to in-person service in August, but even now only 100 can be on the bench at a time. They practice social distancing but continue to send videos of each service to those who cannot for various health reasons. These are the sacrifices that Marble says embody what it means to be a Christian. For those who believe in the same, he says a mask is the least you can do.
“It is sad to see our Christian faith in particular being used as a prop to support injustice, lack of worry, lack of care, and in many cases it sounds like a lack of common sense,” Marble said.
Some remain attached to the idea that their faith warrants an exemption regardless of faith and NewsChannel 5 legal analyst Nick Leonardo says that’s the tricky part for school districts.
He says school districts must show a compelling government interest in denying this specific freedom. Leonardo believes that school districts that deny these exemptions have shown that these policies are in the best interest of protecting student safety. What is in question now is whether this is the least restrictive way to proceed.
“If there are children over 12 who can be vaccinated, I think these will be different criteria than children under 12 and do not have the opportunity to be vaccinated,” said said Leonardo.
At the last count, 13,423 students chose not to wear masks in Williamson County. That’s over 32% of the district. These statistics do not distinguish between medical, religious, or other exemptions such as Executive Order 84 from Governor Bill Lee. The decree gave parents the option of leaving their school’s mask mandates.
Williamson County is also honoring the executive order, but schools in the greater Nashville area have made it clear that they will not honor these or any other non-medical exemptions. Once the school year began, MNPS asked 140 students to step down from the district’s mask mandate.
For there to be any consistency, Leonardo says we need to see a case go to court. This way a judge can decide that other districts can use it as a precedence.
The challenge is to find the right case and the family ready to take the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Leonardo says parents should be prepared for the likelihood that they will have to demonstrate how masks prevent them from practicing their religion.
“This form won’t get you far in court,” Leonardo said.
Two Williamson County families have already filed lawsuits against the district for honoring the governor’s order. They say the ordinance violates the rights of immunocompromised students who now cannot go to school without fear of getting sick.
As a parent himself, Marble says he hopes to see more sensible policies to better protect children. For Marble, the answer was always in the question, what would Jesus do?
“Sure, we can wear a mask if Jesus can wear a cross,” Marble said.