To be exempt from the mask ordinance on religious grounds, applicants must demonstrate that wearing masks offends sincere religious beliefs | Tucker Arensberg, PC
Geerlings v. Tredyffrin / Easttown Sch. Dist., 21-CV-4024, 2021 WL 4399672, at * 1 (ED Pa. September 27, 2021). The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania refuses to ban the school district‘s masking policy because plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that wearing masks is contrary to their sincere religious beliefs.
In response to the continuing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the acting Pennsylvania health secretary recently ordered all schools to require face coverings indoors. The school district adopted a policy consistent with the Mask Ordinance that did not provide for religious exemptions because the Mask Ordinance did not provide for such exemptions.
Claiming that the mask order and policy violated their constitutional right to practice their religious beliefs, four plaintiffs sued the school district and sought an injunction to bar the school district from enforcing the masking order and enforcing its policy that students wear face masks in school.
To obtain redress for a government action based on religious objections, a person must show that he or she possesses a sincere religious belief that is contrary to the contested action.
To be sincere, a religious belief must meet two requirements. First, the belief must be âsincerely heldâ. This requirement is necessary because without some sort of required proof of sincerity on the part of the individual seeking judicial protection of their beliefs, the First Amendment would become an unlimited excuse to evade all unwanted legal obligations.
Second, the belief must be âreligious in natureâ. In other words, it is not enough for applicants to sincerely object to the wearing of a mask. Instead, the complainants “must show that their opposition to wearing a mask” is a religious belief.
To structure the question of which beliefs count as religious, the third circuit proposed three guidelines:
- a religion addresses fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and intangible subjects;
- a religion is of an understanding nature; it consists of a belief system as opposed to isolated teaching; and
- a religion can often be recognized by the presence of certain formal and external signs.
Two plaintiffs argued that wearing masks offends their religious beliefs because they believe people are made in the image of God and it dishonours God for people to cover their faces. However, the court concluded that he was not a genuine tenant in the faith of either plaintiff.
For example, the court noted that a plaintiff was a member of a church that required participants to wear masks. As a result, it appeared in court that she came to her feelings about face coverings on her own and that her âbeliefâ was not sincere. Instead, it was more likely an âexcuseâ to avoid unwanted legal obligations.
Moreover, even though his beliefs were sincere, refusing to wear a mask was not a tenant of his religion. The court explained that this complainant had not shown that she practices with her face uncovered in the same way that followers of Catholicism practice communion or those of the Jewish faith practice eating unleavened bread on Passover. In addition, there was no evidence that his decision to avoid masks matched the teachings of his community, his upbringing, or any other “global belief system.” Moreover, there was no evidence that she practiced it through “formal and external signs” such as holidays, ceremonies, or the clergy. Instead, the court concluded that his beliefs are an âisolated moral lessonâ that reflects the circumstances of the ongoing pandemic and appears to be more associated with opposition to health restrictions.
As for the second claimant making this request, the court noted that he had no objection to his son wearing football helmets or a wrestling helmet. Additionally, this claimant was unable to identify any source of his beliefs that masks a lack of respect for the Creator and it was clear that he did not possess these beliefs prior to the current pandemic.
As a result, the court found that none of those claimants had demonstrated that they had sincere religious beliefs against wearing masks.
The court also dismissed claims by two other plaintiffs that wearing masks offended their religious beliefs. These claimants claimed that it is immoral to harm the body and that the masks harm the body.
One of the complainants, who regularly attends church, was unable to report anything in her community, church or past experiences that would support her claim that she has a religious practice of not wearing masks.
Further, although she sincerely believed that the body was a temple and should not be harmed, the court determined that it was a medical belief and not a religious belief. As the court explained, although the two can sometimes overlap, such as when a ban on eating pork serves both health and spiritual purposes, it takes more than widespread dislike to harm the body for push a practice beyond the medical to religious line. .
The court rejected similar claims from another claimant for a different reason. This applicant has no religious affiliation and has not subscribed to any Bibles. Instead, he described his religion as a set of personal beliefs based on his own research. In short, this seeker’s beliefs were his personal understanding of right and wrong.
The court explained that such a “personal moral code”, although laudable, does not benefit from the protection of the free exercise clause. The court explained:
An individual or a group may adhere to and profess certain political, economic or social doctrines, perhaps with passion. The First Amendment, however, has not been interpreted, at least so far, to house strongly entrenched ideologies of this nature, whatever their scope.
Therefore, the beliefs of these applicants were not entitled to protection because one was a medical belief and the other, in addition to being a medical belief, was based on a personal moral code and not on a religion.
The ruling provides useful guidance to any school district that receives a request for a religious exemption from the current mask ordinance. Although the court specifies that an exemption applicant must demonstrate that their objection to wearing a mask is based on an honest religious belief, the court does not exclude the possibility that some applicants may meet this burden and be entitled to a religious exemption. of the order. Rather, the court explicitly stated that “the district’s obligation to protect the legitimate constitutional right of students to practice their religion cannot be overruled by order of the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health.” Accordingly, school districts should work closely with their attorney if they receive a request for a religious exemption from the Order of the Masks and the corresponding school district policy.