Families across the country are looking forward to a new school year in just a few short weeks. Yet for many, excitement is coupled with concerns about vaccine access, breakthrough cases, and the growing spread of COVID-19 variants in the United States. Children under 12 remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and, despite optimism from the White House, final approval may be months away. And for households with immunocompromised and other high risk members, a return to normal may be even further down the road.
Throughout this crisis, even as our health systems buckled, some religious groups sought special exemptions from public health restrictions and emergency orders. In various courts and state legislatures, advocates distorted the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and freedom of assembly to engage in activities like worship and study that put participants – and the broader community – at risk.
And now, with a new school year on the horizon, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard oral arguments in Resurrection School et al v. Elizabeth Hertel. While the Michigan mask requirement is no longer in place, parents and administrators at a Catholic school in Lansing challenged the earlier mandate as a violation of their religious freedom.
“Unfortunately, a mask shields our humanity,” the Resurrection School argued, “and because God created us in His image, we are masking that image.”
A lower court judge rejected Resurrection’s request for a preliminary injunction against masking for students in kindergarten through fifth grade in December 2020. However, that same group remains categorically ineligible for the vaccine months later. By continuing to seek a religious exemption from basic public health practices, the school’s position poses a direct threat to the very students they are charged with protecting.
The right of religious freedom guarantees all Americans the freedom to believe as we choose, without fear of discrimination or harm. But it doesn’t include the right to put others in danger. When being together – a critical aspect of many religious observances and educational experiences – poses a risk to public health, we’ve have found creative ways to care for one another while keeping each other safe. As faith communities continue to navigate these challenges we carry with us the myriad ways the pandemic has highlighted our interconnectedness, illustrating how the actions of one person can impact us all.
In response to efforts like the suit in Michigan, Interfaith Alliance recently joined 26 national religious organizations and denominations in opposing efforts to create permanent religious exemptions to emergency orders. This letter, alongside persistent advocacy by faith leaders before all levels of government, makes abundantly clear that most religious communities are committed to working in partnership to promote our shared safety – even as some seek special exemptions.
Signers of the April 12th, 2021, letter emphasized that, even as these disputes proceed through the courts, our shared values motivate our communities to act with caution and care. Across belief and practice, we are united by “a deeply-held commitment to protecting life and the most vulnerable among us.” Through this public health emergency and beyond, we will continue to prioritize the health and safety of our communities and lead by example.
We were honored to lead this effort in partnership with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Read the full letter.
Learn more about how Interfaith Alliance works to advance true religious freedom for all.