Thursday, August 26, 2021
The Sixth Circuit yesterday upheld Michigan's mask mandate in schools against free exercise and equal protection challenges. The mandate expired since the lawsuit began, however, so the ruling only means that Michigan didn't violate the Constitution in implementing the mandate, and that it (and other jurisdictions in the Sixth Circuit) can do it again.
The case, Resurrection School v. Hertel, tested the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service requirement that all persons five years of age and older wear a mask in indoor public settings, including while attending public and private K-12 schools. The requirement contained certain exceptions for eating and drinking, for those "engaging in a religious service," for those who have health conditions that restrict their mask wearing, and others. Resurrection sued, arguing that the mandate violated free exercise and equal protection, among other claims.
While the case was pending, the Department rescinded the mask requirement. The Sixth Circuit nevertheless ruled that the case wasn't moot under the voluntary-cessation and capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review exceptions.
On the merits, however, the court rejected the plaintiffs' claims. The court ruled that the mask requirement was a religiously neutral law of general applicability, and easily satisfied rational basis review. As to religious neutrality, the court declined to look outside the schools for a secular comparator to religious schools (like gyms or movie theaters, as some courts have done), which might've demonstrated that the Department was targeting religious schools; instead, it said that the mask requirement treated religious schools exactly as it treated secular schools--the relevant comparator here.
Identifying a comparable secular activity for religious schools other than a public or private nonreligious school is difficult. Schools educating students in grades K-5 are unique in bringing together students not yet old enough to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in an indoor setting and every day. Accordingly, the proper comparable secular activity in this case remains public and private nonreligious schools.
Even under this broader conception of comparable secular activity, the [Department] orders are not so riddled with secular exceptions as to fail to be neutral and generally applicable. . . .
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' equal protection and substantive due process claims, holding that these were merely repackaged free exercise claims.