27 August 2021

Sixth Circuit Ruling Suggests Mask Mandates Are Constitutional

On August 23, 2021, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the attempt of a Lansing nonpublic school, Resurrection School, and related individuals to challenge last school year’s MDHHS mask mandate.  The Plaintiffs attempted to enjoin further mask mandates in schools, citing alleged violations of constitutional entitlements to free exercise of religion, substantive due process, and other various sources of law.

Declining to issue an injunction based on Plaintiffs’ free exercise claim, the court noted that Plaintiffs had claimed the mask mandate violated their sincerely held religious beliefs.  But, after engaging in a lengthy, the court observed that the mandate was “neutral and of general applicability” irrespective of religious status.  As a result, it concluded that the mask mandate was subject to a “rational basis review,” meaning that MDHHS simply had to show it had a legitimate governmental interest and that there was a rational connection between its interest and its action.  Obviously, the connection between masks and prevention of the spread of COVID-19 is well‑known.  Consequently, the court concluded that there was a rational basis for the mandate, and held that Plaintiffs were unlikely to show a constitutional violation – even though it also implicated the rights of parents to direct the education of their children.

Plaintiffs other arguments fared no better.  The court viewed the equal protection claim as essentially a repackaged free exercise claim.  Likewise, it opined that Plaintiff’s substantive due process claim was duplicative of the free exercise claim.  Accordingly, the court found that Plaintiffs were not likely to win on the merits of their case, and declined to enjoin MDHHS from further mask mandates.

As local health departments and schools in Michigan receive increasing amounts of pushback relative to mask mandates – including requests for student religious exemptions and other bases for exemptions – administrators have been forced to navigate what can be a legal minefield.  But the Sixth Circuit’s decision is cause for reassurance that mask mandates from proper authorities – MDHHS, local health departments, and schools – are constitutional and do not discriminate on the basis of religion.

The decision can be reviewed here.