Mask exemptions based on religious beliefs granted in Williamson Co. schools

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Posted at 9:14 PM, Oct 23, 2020

FRANKLIN, Tenn. (WTVF) — Parents in Williamson County are applying for mask exemptions based on religion and school officials from both districts say little stands in their way.

Franklin Special School District is hardly the only district where these rules apply. They just happen to be one of the few willing to be transparent about what it takes for a student to obtain one of these exemptions.

Abby Kate Burns of Franklin found out about the exemptions, a lot like NewsChannel 5 did, from a post on the unmasked Williamson County Facebook page.

The post showed parents making comparisons between Muslim religious attire and the freedoms they too should be offered. One post read, "since masking is most definitely against my Christian faith, I'm going to use a religious exemption to fight for my kids to return to school mask free."

As a Christian herself, Burns felt she had to respond.

“I’m not a bible expert or anything, but Jesus is kind and loving and generous and thinks of others and is an advocate for the marginalized and that doesn’t align with saying I’m not going to wear a mask,” Burns said.

The initial Facebook post asked for advice and feedback on how people could fight the mask mandate. That's when one parent responded by saying they received a religious exemption and were willing to share how they made it happen.

What was more frustrating for Burns were comments where one parent doesn’t even mention faith as their reason, but yet other parents say to use the religious exemption anyway. The replies gave a step-by-step guide for how parents could request the affidavit.

We found that in this small district, nine students now have this exemption. The process requires a signed affidavit by parents, but ultimately the district’s attorney has advised that every request is approved.

“It’s going to be masses of people saying we’re not going to do this than we get into a very separated culture where maybe there are masked schools and non-masked schools,” Burns said.

On Saturday, Williamson County will reinstate its mask mandate. A decision Franklin mayor Ken Moore says was necessary.

“I think this is a good idea based on the fact that we have a spike in COVID-19 cases at this time,” Moore said.

School superintendents from both Williamson county school districts were on hand to show their support Thursday when the announcement was made.

Williamson County Schools also have the same mask exemptions for both religious and medical reasons, but could not tell us how many students have been approved for them.

As one of the largest school districts in the state, Metro Nashville Public Schools say they’re not aware of any requests made for religious accommodations. They will however make medical exemptions, not unlike other districts.

“That process involves an individualized review to determine steps that can be taken to keep that student and those around them safe. Parents who do not wish for their students to wear masks, do have the option to remain in the virtual learning environment as well.”

We contacted the Tennessee Department of Education who say these decisions are up to each district and schools are not required to share this information with the state.