D.C. mayor threatened with religious freedom lawsuit for keeping mask mandate on Catholic schools

Parents of schoolchildren were promised a formal response, but House Republicans were rebuffed for similar letter, congressman's office says.

Updated: March 2, 2022 - 10:41pm

One might think the COVID-19 pandemic is over in the nation's capital. 

Most lawmakers and Biden administration Cabinet officials were seen shaking hands without masks during the president's first State of the Union address Tuesday. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ended indoor mask requirements this week for places where adults gather for entertainment, commerce and recreation.

But it's not over for children in the District's public and private schools.

Bowser is now facing a potential legal battle with parents of parochial school children and political scrutiny from House Republicans, including members of the Oversight Committee, which has jurisdiction over D.C. issues.

The Archdiocese of Washington, which oversees Catholic schools in D.C. and nearby Maryland counties, went mask-optional under its own policy Feb. 21 and told Washington parents it's pressing the city to end the school mandate. 

Working with the organization ADWParents.org, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) threatened to take D.C. to court if it didn't grant mask exemptions to parochial school children, citing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and First Amendment. 

A dozen House Republicans, led by Oversight Committee member Ralph Norman of South Carolina, asked Bowser's office Feb. 28 for the documentation and research behind her decision to keep the school mandate in place and evidence that masks don't have negative effects on children. 

The two letters got different responses. The Department of Health promised a formal response to ADF once it finishes evaluating the CDC's newly updated mask recommendations, the public interest law firm told Just the News. 

By contrast, Bowser's office told the House Republicans, "We will not be sending a response to this letter," Norman's spokesperson Alexander Crane told Just the News. Neither the department nor Bowser's office responded to queries.

Bowser has not always followed her own rules. Over the span of less than 24 hours last summer, during which she reinstated the mask mandate, the mayor partied maskless with comedian Dave Chapelle for her birthday and officiated an indoor wedding barefaced.

Tweet URL
Tweet URL

No evidence of protection during Omicron

Given the wide range of previous and newly exempt institutions, from bars and gyms to sporting venues, "it would be more accurate to characterize the private-school mask mandate the exception, and private maskless gatherings as the rule," ADF wrote the department Feb. 28.

Bowser's order "substantially burdens parents' ability to educate their children in accordance with their faith," it says. "The Catholic educational process requires teachers to fully perceive, interact with, and encourage proper expressions and affirmations of mental, social, and spiritual health and well-being from their students, including through their facial expressions."

Masks cause physical discomfort and general uncleanliness, distracting from the "pleasant and welcoming" environment students need to learn.

Under Supreme Court precedent, Catholic schools are "persons" under the RFRA whose exercise of religion can't be "substantially" burdened even under "a rule of general applicability," the letter says.

The "multitude of categorical exemptions" in the mandate contradicts any "compelling interest" the city could claim to make kids keep wearing masks. Office workers are permitted to "congregate maskless in larger numbers and for longer hours" than children in Catholic schools, and the city has long exempted seated restaurant patrons regardless of density or duration.

D.C. has not set forth evidence that the mask mandate will even protect children from the "extreme contagiousness of the Omicron variant," and it's likely most of them already recovered from COVID, which doesn't seriously threaten children, the letter claims.

ADF told Just the News this was the first COVID-related legal threat it made backed by the federal RFRA, which won't work in the state-level challenges it has brought, though both are seeking the same treatment for religious institutions as for restaurants.

The dozen House Republicans who wrote to Bowser said masks have negative effects on children that go "beyond the realm of a public health measure," from language development to emotional intelligence, and worse for children with developmental disorders. 

The World Health Organization has been much more cautious, recommending exemptions for children under 5 and consideration of multiple factors for children 6-11, and European countries have leaned in that direction as well, they said.

Given that the novel coronavirus is just as likely to spread in exempt venues as in schools, the House Republicans question "whether the logic behind this decision is truly rooted in science or is attributed to political motives," possibly alluding to demands from the Washington Teachers' Union.

Among information they are seeking from the mayor: the "classification system" for deciding which environments are exempt, and documentation for Bowser's decision to "implement and later repeal the vaccine pass requirement," which lasted just a month.

Oversight Committee members Norman, Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Clay Higgins (La.) were joined by Louie Gohmert, Brian Babin and Randy Weber (Texas); Marjorie Taylor Greene and Barry Loudermilk (Ga.); Mary Miller (Ill.); Jeff Duncan (S.C.); Chuck Fleischmann (Tenn.); and Dan Bishop (N.C.).