Michigan Catholic school argues in lawsuit mask mandates violate religious liberty by hiding 'God's image'

Most previous religious liberty cases related to the coronavirus have centered around the right to worship and the case could set a precedent for future mask mandates

An appeals court will hear a case from a Michigan Catholic school Wednesday claiming mask mandates violate religious liberty by covering "God’s image and likeness," according to reports. 

The Resurrection School in Lansing, Michigan, first brought the lawsuit last fall while there was still a mandate in the state. 

"As Catholics, we believe that we are all created in the image and likeness of God," Rev. Steve Mattson, Church of the Resurrection pastor, told Fox News in a statement. "Masks make it more difficult to interact with others, since the facial expressions are hidden and those who are soft-spoken are difficult to hear and understand." 

The lawsuit argued that masks make students less social and two parents who joined in the suit said masks caused physical discomfort and made it harder for their children to breathe.

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FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo, students arrive by bus at Foundation Preparatory School for their return to school in New Orleans.  (Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, File)

FILE - In this Oct. 12, 2020, file photo, students arrive by bus at Foundation Preparatory School for their return to school in New Orleans.  (Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate via AP, File)

"Masks also make us anti-social," the school continued, according to FOX 11 in Los Angeles. "They interfere with relations. As the Catholic faith teaches, we are relational beings." The school added that wearing a mask "conveys the message that the wearer has surrendered his or her freedom to the government."

Most previous religious liberty cases related to the coronavirus have centered around the right to worship and the case could set a precedent for future mask mandates, the Post reported. 

Mattson told WILX-TV in Lansing the school didn’t "have any cases of in-school transmission" in the last year despite 5th graders and younger never wearing masks in classrooms. 

He told Fox News the school took the pandemic very seriously and instituted many precautions that went beyond state requirements. 

"Last year, we began the school year in accord with state orders by masking our teachers and older grades at all times, but leaving those younger students in grades K-5 unmasked," he continued. "Our families approved this approach when they enrolled their students. A month into the school year, the state suddenly required masks even for younger students in the classroom. This interfered with religious instruction (which is integrated throughout all that we do) and personal relationships, particularly for those young children who are still learning how to relate and communicate with others." 

Mattson said despite there being no current mask mandate in schools, "We know that can be reinstated at any time and we want to be able to get in front of it," he said, according to WILX

"Students who struggle most and the youngest in the school who are still learning to interact socially find mask-wearing most difficult," he added. "The mask mandate imposed an undue burden on our ability to engage freely with students around their growth as disciples of Christ, and for them to engage with each other freely in keeping with their human dignity." 

Ingham County health officer Linda Vail argued in a response to the appeal Monday the lawsuit should be thrown out because the county doesn’t plan to issue any more mandates. 

Last December, the school was denied a preliminary injunction that would have banned mask mandates for kindergarteners through 5th graders in religious schools, with the judge ruling the mask mandates didn’t unfairly target religious schools. 

Bioethics and health policy Professor M. Therese Lysaught at Loyola University Chicago reasoned to the Post that the school’s claim that masks hide God’s image would also subject mask-wearing surgeons and veil-wearing worshippers, for example, to the same scrutiny. Although, she admitted the district-court judge accepted the school’s beliefs were sincerely held. 

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Lysaught advocated for Catholics to wear masks "because we value the image of God in every other person and because we want to do everything we can to promote the life and health and flourishing of every other human person," she told the Post. "We will wear masks to do that."

 Mattson added, "We brought our original action because we believed that the state’s orders interfered with our free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Though the mask mandate is not in effect for the summer, we decided it was wise to maintain our appeal of the court's decision to the 6th Circuit Court so that come fall, when it is reasonably likely the mask mandate will be reinstated, our concerns regarding religious education might be accommodated."