In-depth: From church to courts, religious mask exemptions explained

Posted at 7:18 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 20:18:25-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Mask exemptions continue to be a highly debated issue, especially when based on religious beliefs. Not every district honors these exemptions and some say it opens the door for legal battles with parents.

Just this week, Williamson County Schools extended its mask policy, but not before once again revisiting the issue of mask exemptions. Some board members argued it was time to remove exceptions to a policy that should be district-wide. Meanwhile, board member Dan Cash expressed his frustration by asking the question, “how much are we going to step on these people’s liberties?”

The board relied on their attorney who suggested it would be in the district’s best interest to not challenge parents who could turn around and sue to have their religious beliefs recognized. The board ultimately voted to keep the religious exemptions, but raised a question of if families were abusing the exemptions to avoid masks. Rev. Aaron Marble says he worries it’s become far less about Christ and more about culture.

Toward the end of last school year, Williamson County parents were on Facebook instructing each other on how to file for religious exemption. Some parents replied that it was the best way to get out of wearing a mask, without a medical exemption.

“It’s a backward mismanagement of what it means to be faithful,” Marble said.

Marble and his congregation at the historic Jefferson St. Missionary Baptist Church went through incredible measures during the pandemic to keep their congregation close, but apart.

It took them 17 months to return to in-person service in August, but even now only 100 people can be in the pews at a time. They practice social distancing but continue to send videos of each service to those who can’t make it for various health reasons. It’s these 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’s sad to see particularly our Christian faith be used as a prop to hold up injustice, lack of concern, lack of care, and in many cases, it seems like a lack of common sense,” Marble said.

Some remain devoted to the idea that their faith justifies an exemption no matter what the faith may be and NewsChannel 5 legal analyst Nick Leonardo says that’s the tricky part for school districts.

He says that school districts have to show a compelling governmental interest for denying that specific freedom. Leonardo believes that school districts that deny these exemptions have shown that these policies are in the best interest of protecting the safety of students. What’s in question now, is if this is the least restrictive way to go about doing that.

“If there are children over the age of 12 and can be vaccinated, I think that’s going to be different criteria than the children under 12 and don’t have the ability to be vaccinated,” Leonardo said.

At last count, 13,423 students opted out of masks in Williamson County. That’s more than 32% of the district. These stats do not differentiate between medical, religious, or other exemptions such as Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order 84. The order gave parents the ability to out of their school’s mask mandates.

Williamson County honors the executive order as well, but Metro Nashville Schools have made it clear they will not honor these or any other exemptions that aren’t medical-related. Once the school year began, MNPS had 140 students request to opt-out of the district’s mask mandate.

For there to be any consistency, Leonardo says we have to see a case make it through the courts. That way a judge can decide that other districts can use as precedence.

The challenge is finding the right case and family willing to take the issue to perhaps the Tennessee Supreme Court. Leonardo says parents must prepare for the likelihood that they would have to demonstrate how masks restrict them from practicing their religion.

“That form will only get you so far in the court of law,” Leonardo said.

Two Williamson County families have already filed lawsuits against the district for honoring the governor’s executive order. They say the order violates the rights of immunocompromised students who now can’t attend school without fear of getting sick.

As a parent himself, Marble says he hopes to see more common-sense policies to better protect children. For Marble, the answer has always been in the question, what would Jesus do?

“Certainly we can carry a mask if Jesus can carry a cross,” Marble said.