On The Front Lines
School District to Georgia Mom: Wear Mask or Be Barred From Son’s Football Game (Again)
ATLANTA, Ga. — The Rutherford Institute has again come to the aid of a Georgia parent who has been barred from attending her son’s high school football games unless she compromises her religious beliefs and complies with the school district’s mask requirement for spectators. Fulton County (Ga.) Schools (FCS) lawyers rejected a request by Rutherford Institute attorneys that Tara Barnett be exempt from the mandate in accordance with explicit provisions in Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s executive orders requiring religious accommodations. While FCS cited Georgia State High School Association (HSA) guidelines for its refusal, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that the school’s reasoning is legally flawed given that the HSA guidelines, which only recommend spectators wear face coverings, cannot take precedence over the governor’s orders mandating religious exemptions.
“No parent should be forced to choose between abiding by their religious beliefs or exercising their parental rights, especially not when the government has no compelling interest for doing so and when reasonable accommodations can be made,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “If the governor is willing to accommodate religious beliefs and provide mask exemptions to those who social distance, school officials must do no less.”
Since March 2020, Georgia’s Governor has issued a series of Executive Orders responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In three Orders issued in August and September, Gov. Kemp authorized government entities to impose “Local Option Face Covering Requirement[s]” mandating that persons “wear face masks or face coverings when not able to maintain Social Distancing from non-cohabitating persons[.]” Each of the three Orders provides that a local mask requirement “shall not be applied to . . ., those who have a bona fide religious objection to wearing a face mask or face covering[.]” Tara Barnett, whose son is a member of the junior varsity football team at Milton High School, received an email from the school announcing that all spectators at FCS athletic event will be required to wear a face covering and that spectators will be required to social distance at the event venue, i.e., only sit in designated areas and sit six feet apart unless sitting with family. Upon learning of the mask/face covering requirement, Mrs. Barnett contacted the school’s athletic director and requested an accommodation from the mask requirement because of her sincere religious beliefs in opposition to the use of masks or face coverings. The FCS athletic director denied Mrs. Barnett’s request to be exempt from the face covering mandate. In its letter to FCS on behalf of Mrs. Barnett, The Rutherford Institute asserts that the denial of her request for an accommodation so she can attend her son’s football games clearly contradicts Gov. Kemp’s Orders requiring local face covering rules allow for exemptions based on religious beliefs. FCS, through legal counsel, refused to allow Mrs. Barnett an exemption relying on face covering recommendations of the Georgia High School Association. FCS also claimed it is not a “government entity” subject to the Governor’s religious exemption requirement, but Rutherford Institute attorneys pointed to several statutes defining school districts and boards of education as government entities.
The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, defends individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated and educates the public about threats to their freedoms.