Lansing Catholic school challenges Ingham County mask mandate

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A Lansing Catholic school that unsuccessfully fought to block a state mask mandate last year has asked a federal judge to reconsider its case for a temporary halt to a similar county order, arguing the new mandate targets religious schools. 

Resurrection School and two parents on behalf of their children filed a motion for a temporary restraining order Friday that would block the Ingham County Health Department order set to take effect Tuesday. 

The school asked U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney of the Western District of Michigan to reconsider its case in light of a June U.S. Supreme Court decision stopping the city of Philadelphia from banning adoption agencies who refused to work with gay couples because of religious reasons. The school also argued that, unlike the state orders, the new county mandate has unequal application, ordering masks in schools while ignoring other public locations like movie theaters or recreational facilities.

Linda Vail, health officer for Ingham County (right), speaks with a colleague at their offices in Lansing on Dec. 2, 2020. Resurrection School has asked a federal judge to temporarily block Vail's K-12 school mask mandate that is scheduled to take effect Tuesday.

The school also noted that Ingham County Health Director Linda Vail told media while issuing the order that it did not affect 97% of Ingham County's public schools where similar policies were already enacted. 

"The challenged order notably targets Catholic and private religious schools,” which are likely to make up much of that remaining 3%, the lawsuit said.

Ingham County Health Department declined to comment on pending litigation.

In its Friday filing, the school said it uses “state-of-the-art” filtration, ventilation and UV-C disinfection. Since classes began Aug. 24, there have been no cases of COVID-19 transmission, the lawsuit said.

The school said it believed it was wrong to punish kids who struggled to wear the mask.

“Defendant’s order requires plaintiff Resurrection school to change its disciplinary policy to police mask usage and to disregard the sincere voice and concern of parents, who under the Catholic Catechism maintain the authority to direct and control decisions affecting their children’s educational, social, and medical needs, such as requiring their children to wear a mask for the entire school day,” the suit said.

The school argued Vail should have allowed for religious exemptions, noting religious education was “at least as important as napping,” which is an exempt activity under the order.

“If Defendant Vail can provide an accommodation for napping, medical accommodations, etc., then she must be required to provide a religious accommodation,” the motion said.

Maloney denied Resurrection School a temporary restraining order against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services mask mandate in October, ruling that the state order was not motivated by hostility to any specific faith and that it was neutral because it applied to all schools.

The school appealed to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, where the state asked the case be denied because, with the mask mandate rescinded by that point, the issue was moot. The Sixth Circuit ruled last month that because the state orders were applied equally to religious and secular schools, there was no proof it targeted religious freedoms specifically.

Resurrection School will ask for an "en banc" hearing — one before all of the appellate judges and not just a select panel — to reconsider the Sixth Circuit decision.

The statewide mask mandate is no longer in place, but several school leaders have pushed for the state to reinstate one instead of leaving the decision to individual school districts or county health departments. Dozens of school districts and county health departments, including Ingham County, have issued mask mandates in the last couple of weeks.