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Where a challenged law is neutral and of general applicability and has merely an incidental effect on a plaintiffs' religious beliefs, the defendants need not show a compelling governmental interest. If burdening the exercise of religion is merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended. Where the challenged law does not meet these requirements, the defendants must show that the policy is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.
To control the spread of COVID-19, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services ("MDHHS") required that all persons five years of age and older wear a mask in indoor public settings, including while attending public and private K-12 schools. Plaintiffs Resurrection School, a Catholic elementary school in Lansing, Michigan, and two parents with children enrolled at the school, on behalf of themselves and their minor children, challenged the mask requirement as a violation of their free exercise of religion, equal protection, and substantive due process rights. Since plaintiffs filed suit, MDHHS has rescinded almost all COVID-19 pandemic emergency orders, including the challenged mask requirement. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim that the Order violated their equal-protection rights by permitting individuals to remove their face covering in certain circumstances, because there was nothing in the face-mask requirement that treated similarly situated groups of individuals different. Plaintiffs appealed. Defendants moved to dismiss the appeal as moot because MDHHS has rescinded the mask requirements. Plaintiffs opposed the motion.
The decision was affirmed. According to the court, the case was not moot as the government did not show that it would not reimpose a similar mandate as there was a possibility of escalating COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. The case was also not moot because it met the requirements of the capable of repetition, yet evading review exception to mootness. The court also held that injunctive relief was not warranted because the mandate did not violate the Free Exercise Clause as the order was neutral and of general applicability and it satisfied rational-basis review since the state had a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of COVID-19 and requiring masks in schools minimized the spread of COVID-19.