Last week The Ohio Star broke the story of Alecia Kitts. She is the Ohio mom who was tased, arrested and escorted from a football stadium because she refused to wear a mask at her son’s middle school football game – consequently, Kitts was charged with criminal trespass, resisting arrest and obstructing official business.
Kitts refused to comply with the request to put on a mask claiming an exemption for her asthma. She was also seated away from other fans.
At the heart of the controversy is whether schools are required to honor mask exemptions written into the statewide mask order and the Ohio sports order, the latter which gives schools guidelines for conducting sports contests.
The July 23 statewide mask order contains a list of exemptions:
- Those with a medical condition or a disability or those communicating with someone with a disability;
- Those who are actively exercising or playing sports;
- Those who are officiants at religious services;
- Those who are actively involved in public safety; or
- Those who are actively eating or drinking.
The sports order released by the Ohio Department of Health Interim Director Lance Himes includes the same exemptions from the statewide mask order.
The order also states all individuals must wear facial coverings in public at all times when “[o]utdoors, but unable to maintain six-foot social distance from people who are not household members.”
On Tuesday during the COVID presser, The Star asked Ohio Republican Governor DeWine about schools and their selective enforcement of the mandates:
Last week a Marietta mom was violently removed from a stadium after she was asked to mask and didn’t comply – despite being six feet away from others not in her family and having a medical exemption.
Today, the mother of a high school student was told that her son’s medical exemption was not going to be honored by the school and the school also questioned her religious exemption – asking for documentation from a church leader and materials that would establish the existence of long-standing beliefs. Essentially, the school is now adjudicating which religious beliefs are valid and which are not.
Governor should schools simply be honoring exemptions allowed in the sports order and the statewide mask mandate from July 23? Why or Why not?
DeWine’s answer did not clear up the matter, except to signal that schools may pick-and-choose whether and how to implement state orders:
Well we created the exemption to take care of seriously held beliefs that would prohibit someone from wearing a mask. It came about in a conversation I had with a superintendent where the superintendent said we have people in our community and they – for religious reasons – do not want to or feel that they can wear a mask. That sounds reasonable. Throughout this we have tried to be very respectful of people’s religion. We never closed the churches. We never, ever did that – at all. So we put this religious exemption in there.
We have 630-some school districts, we have private schools and each one of them has to make a determination. I can’t make a determination in these cases.
I think our superintendents are doing a good job. I think our principals are doing a good job and they’re making a case-by-case determination of what they can do.
Your question is…what you don’t want to have is a situation where you just say to people ‘look, all you have to do is check this box and you don’t have to wear a mask.’ That’s not going to accomplish what we need to accomplish.
We don’t have to have everybody wearing a mask. But we have to have a very, very significant number of them. And we’ve seen time and time again, out in society, out in different counties that does make a huge, huge difference.
This is something I trust our local schools – they have leeway in this. We’re not going to second-guess them. We’re not going to tell them they were wrong.
We try to give them broad guidance so that we could say to parents and we can say to schools ‘if you go back in person, if you follow these guidelines, this is the safest way that you can do this.”
Let me just say, they’re doing a bang-up job. They’re doing a very, very, very good job in managing a difficult situation. My hat’s off to the superintendents, the principals, the teachers, parents. I think by-and-large everyone is doing a very, very good job in a very difficult environment.
However, the governor’s assertions that “throughout this we have tried to be very respectful of people’s religion” contradicts comments made during pressers since March by both him and Lt. Governor Jon Husted – as evidenced by an April 1 tweet from DeWine’s Twitter account.
Churches: Anyone who goes into a big group of people is making a very, very serious mistake. They're endangering themselves, their family, and total strangers. Any pastor who brings a group of people together – it's a huge mistake.
— Governor Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) April 1, 2020
There are at least a few legal matters at play now involving mandatory masking in school and at sporting contests.
The first is whether a mandate can be picked-and-chosen from by schools who then selectively enforce mask wearing without exemptions.
The second issue was identified by an Ashland Common Pleas Court judge in a case involving mask wearing when he said:
If the State’s Order recognizes exceptions to a blanket mask wearing rule and as such would not consider the lack of wearing a mask an immediate danger to the public health, then it begs the question as to whether the failure to wear a mask for any reason could ever constitute a basis for finding an immediate danger to the public health.
The third issue involves schools choosing which religious beliefs and institutions qualify for a religious exemption. Schools are a political subdivision and put themselves in a tricky spot when choosing which religion to honor and which to refuse.
The Star received an email from Carissa Fetty, the mother of David Fetty, a South-Western City School District (SWCSD) student. The email is from the district’s deputy superintendent, David Stewart.
Fetty told The Star the district initially refused to accept medical documentation to exempt her son from wearing a face covering – but eventually offered for David to wear a shield instead of a mask. Fetty also included a religious exemption in her communication with the school that the district denied.
In the email, Stewart indicates he will determine whether the student’s religious belief qualifies for an exemption and writes “we request the following from you:
Documentation from your church leader, such as a letter, that states that specific tenets of your established religion prevent [student] from wearing a face shield.
Materials that would establish the existence of these long-standing beliefs of your religion, such as a website address or recognized statement of religious doctrine.”
Providing the requested information will not guarantee an exemption, as Mr. Stewart goes on to write that he would be “happy to review” the materials and expects the student in question to wear “at a minimum, a face shield when he attends Grove City High School this week and maintain appropriate social distancing.”
The Star called Stewart to validate the email and get his comments on the matter. A SWCSD spokesperson returned the call and requested to see the email in question before commenting – the spokesperson later confirmed the email but additional comments were not provided before this article published.
Mrs. Fetty responded to Stewart’s email at length, writing “while it would be difficult for any pastor to tell you the heart and desires of anyone in their congregation, I can give you Scripture references that we have discussed in our mask-free Covenant Church, regarding face coverings.” Fetty goes on to offer her pastor’s name and encourages Stewart to contact him for verification.
Stewart responded to Fetty’s religious documentation through email with succinct answer, writing “[t]he District’s position remains that Daniel will be expected to wear a mask when attending Grove City High School.”
The Star followed-up with DeWine’s press secretary Dan Tierney on the selective enforcement of mask orders, asking “[t]he order and exemptions are up to each individual school – correct? How does this affect OHSAA-hired inspectors and schools enforcing/not enforcing orders and guidance?”
Tierney responded by text message the following “I think the issue you described is more of due diligence. It is common for schools to ask for verification from parents on these types of issues, pandemic emergency or not. The expectation remains that except in very limited and uncommon circumstances, masks should be worn in the settings prescribed.”
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Jack Windsor is Managing Editor and an Investigative Reporter at The Ohio Star. Windsor is also an Investigative Reporter at WMFD-TV. Follow Jack on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Mike DeWine” by The Ohio Channel.