Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Refuses to Enjoin a Mask Mandate Lacking a Religious Exemption

On August 23, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit weighed in on the constitutionality of mask mandates lacking a religious exemption. A Michigan school challenged the mandate in place by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, stating the order was a violation of their free exercise of religion, equal protection, and substantive due process rights. A school official said the K-5 mask mandate violated the school’s sincerely held religious beliefs by preventing students from participating fully in their Catholic education.

In a 2-1 decision, the court affirmed the district court’s opinion that mask mandates that did not include an exemption for religious beliefs was not in violation of the Free Exercise of Religion Clause, noting it was subject to the rational basis test. The judge ruled the state order was not motivated by hostility to any specific faith and that it was neutral because it applied to all schools. Further, Defendants did not challenge the sincerity of the religious objection to the mandate, thereby simplifying the court’s analysis.

The rational basis is the least burdensome test and to prevail the governmental entity need only show some rational relation to a legitimate state interest. In contrast, the court could have applied “intermediate scrutiny” which would have required the government to show an important interest. The final option would have been to require “strict scrutiny” which requires the highest burden, a compelling state interest. In short, the court established that mask mandates need only clear the shortest and easiest to clear the hurdle.

What does this mean for your district?

Resurrection School v. Hertel serves as a roadmap for combatting religious exemption challenges to mask mandates. Such mandates should be examined to ensure neutrality and general applicability. Other nonreligious exemptions, such as medical exemptions should be narrow and discreet. Please contact one of the attorneys on the Ennis Britton team if you have questions about this case or mask mandates.

Constitutional Right to a Basic Minimum Education

Does a Constitutional right to a basic minimum education exist? The question has been repeatedly discussed by the Supreme Court of the United States but never decided. For states under the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, including Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee, the Sixth Circuit recognized such a right for twenty-six days. A panel of the Sixth Circuit recognized the existence of such a right on April 23, 2020, and the decision remained in place until it was vacated on May 19, 2020. Prior to an en banc panel of the Court providing definitive guidance on the issue, the case settled and has been dismissed. Thus, presently, no such constitutional right is recognized. It is anticipated, nonetheless that this argument will be made in future cases with the vacated decision serving as a roadmap for making such a claim.

In Gary B. v. Whitmer, Nos. 18-1855/1871 (6th Cir. 2020), students in several of Detroit’s worst-performing public schools claimed that the conditions in their schools deprived them of a basic minimum education, meaning one that provided a chance at foundational literacy. The plaintiffs attributed the substandard performance to poor conditions within their classrooms, including missing or unqualified teachers, physically dangerous facilities, and inadequate books and materials. Plaintiffs based all of their claims on the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Plaintiffs argued that while other students receive an adequate education, they did not in violation of their Constitutional rights.

In a 2-1 split opinion authored by Judge Clay and joined by Judge Stranch, the panel agreed that the Plaintiffs had “been denied basic minimum education, and thus have been deprived of access to literacy.” The majority opinion observed:

The recognition of a fundamental right is no small matter. This is particularly true when the right in question is something that the state must affirmatively provide. But just as this Court should not supplant the state’s policy judgments with its own, neither can we shrink from our obligation to recognize a right when it is foundational to our system of self-governance.

Access to literacy is such a right. Its ubiquitous presence and evolution through our history have led the American people universally to expect it. And education—at least in the minimum form discussed here—is essential to nearly every interaction between a citizen and her government. Education has long been viewed as a great equalizer, giving all children a chance to meet or outperform society’s expectations, even when faced with substantial disparities in wealth and with past and ongoing racial inequality.

Where, as Plaintiffs allege here, a group of children is relegated to a school system that does not provide even a plausible chance to attain literacy, we hold that the Constitution provides them with a remedy. Accordingly, while the current versions of Plaintiffs’ equal protection and compulsory attendance claims were appropriately dismissed, the district court erred in denying their central claim: that Plaintiffs have a fundamental right to basic minimum education, meaning one that can provide them with a foundational level of literacy.

After a judge in the Sixth Circuit requested a poll of the other judges in the circuit, on May 19, 2020, a majority of the Judges in the Sixth Circuit in regular active service voted for a rehearing of the case, en banc, or in front of all the judges in the Circuit. By rule, the grant of a rehearing en banc vacated the April 23, 2020, decision by Judge Clay. Thus, the recognition of the fundamental right to a basic minimum education proved to be short-lived. 

Prior to the en banc review of the case, on June 10, 2020, the Court granted a motion to dismiss the appeal on the basis that the case had settled. As part of the settlement, Governor Whitmer of Michigan agreed to:

  • Propose legislation providing Detroit Public Schools with $94.4 million for literacy programs.
  • Send $280,000 for seven students to participate in “high-quality literacy programs.
  • Pay $2.7 million to Detroit schools for literacy programs.
  • Have the state department of education advise districts on literacy programs to improve reading proficiency and reduce economic, racial, and ethnic disparities.

While the Gary B. case is settled with the underlying decision vacated, the issue of the existence of a Constitutional right to basic minimum education is not. We expect this issue to be raised in future litigation with reliance upon the reasoning from the 2-1, albeit vacated, decision. 

COVID-19 Update: Unemployment Coverage for Public Entities

Many public employers are considering staffing adjustments in light of the coronavirus and its impact on available work. For those employees not covered under contracts that must be paid in the case of an “epidemic or other public calamity” pursuant to RC 3319.08(B) and 3319.081(G), layoffs are being contemplated. In order to have all the information on the financial impact of such a decision, the public employer should consider whether it is a “contributory employer” or a “reimbursing employer.” 

Generally speaking, public employers are reimbursing employers. Essentially, reimbursing employers are self-insured and will be billed dollar-for-dollar by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services for claims paid.   Public entity employers who have elected to become a contributory employer have paid unemployment tax. Contributory employers will have their claims mutualized with other employers in the state and will not have to reimburse on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Determining if the public entity is a contributory employer or a reimbursing employer will be necessary to determine how much will be saved via staffing reductions.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act) provides that reimbursing employers may be reimbursed for one-half of the amounts paid into a state unemployment trust fund between March 13, 2020, and December 31, 2020.

If you have any questions regarding unemployment compensation issues, please reach out to any of the Ennis Britton lawyers.

New Guidance on Privacy for Student Education and Health Records

The U.S. Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released updated guidance regarding the application of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to a student’s education and health records. 

FERPA generally prohibits educational agencies receiving federal funds from disclosing a student’s education records without the prior written consent of the parent or eligible student. On the other hand, HIPAA requires covered entities (health plans, health care clearinghouses, and health care providers) to protect an individual’s health records and other personal health information these entities maintain or transmit. 

Are Public Schools Subject to HIPAA’s Privacy Requirements?

In a few very limited instances, an educational institution subject to FERPA may also be subject to the HIPAA privacy requirements. A school may be considered a “health care provider” if it provides health care to students in the normal course of business and the transactions are those for which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has adopted a standard form. Even though a school may employ nurses, physicians, or psychologists, schools generally do not bill health care plans for their services. Thus, most schools are not entities covered by HIPAA. Even if a school that is considered to be an entity covered by HIPAA (e.g., when a school hires a health care provider that bills Medicaid for services provided under the IDEA), it will not have to abide by the privacy requirements if the school maintains health information only in “educational records” under FERPA. This is due to HIPAA’s Privacy Rule explicitly excluding FERPA “educational records” from the scope of the act. 45 CFR § 160.103.

Frequently Asked Questions

This new guidance includes a list of new frequently asked questions along with answers to when a student’s health information can be shared without the consent of the parent or eligible student under FERPA and HIPAA. We will discuss some of these new clarifications below.

  1. When can personal health information or personally identifiable information be shared about a student who presents a danger to themselves or to others?

FERPA allows educational institutions to disclose personally identifiable information to certain appropriate parties if knowledge of this information would be necessary to protect the health or safety of a student or others. This disclosure may take place with or without the consent of the student. 20 U.S.C. § 1232 g(b)(1)(I); 34 CFR §§ 99.31(a)(10) and 99.36. In order to use this exception, the educational institution must look to the totality of the circumstances and determine that there is an articulable and significant threat to the health or safety of the student or others. 34 CFR § 99.36(c). An articulable and significant threat means that if the educational institution can reasonably explain why it believes a student poses a significant threat, such as bodily harm to himself or others, the school may disclose educational records to any person who would be able to assist in protecting a person from that threat. If the educational institution is able to show that it had a rational basis for disclosing the information, the U.S. Department of Education will not substitute its judgment for that of the educational institution making its decision. 34 CFR § 99.36(c). The ability to share this information expires once the danger is no longer present.

The Joint Guidance provided the following example: A student states that he knows where his parents keeps his guns and that he is going to come back and make sure that someone pays for what they have done. What is the district supposed to do? According to the U.S. Department of Education, FERPA permits the district to warn the appropriate parties that the student has made this statement and may be a threat to harm themselves or others. The district may inform the student’s parents, the police, or other parties that would be in a position to help protect the health and safety of the student or others.

  1. Under FERPA, can an educational institution disclose, without prior written consent, personally identifiable information from a student’s educational or health records to their law enforcement officials?

The short answer is yes, so long as certain conditions are met. If the person is an employee of the educational institution,  meets the school’s definition of a “school official” based on the school’s annual FERPA notice, and has a legitimate educational interest in the information/records then the law enforcement official may be considered a school official to whom a student’s personally identifiable information may be disclosed without prior written consent. 20 U.S.C. § 1232g(b)(1)(A); 34 CFR §§ 99.7(a)(3)(iii) and 99.31(a)(1)(i)(A). 

What about School Resource Officers and other law enforcement officials who are not employees of the educational institution? School resource officers are not employees of the educational institution but may be considered a “school official” if they:

  1. Perform an institutional service or function for which the school would otherwise use employees (e.g., ensure school safety or security);
  2. Are under “direct control” of the educational institution with respect to the maintenance of the educational records. (e.g., done through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to establish restrictions and protections);
  3. Are subject to FERPA’s use and re-disclosure requirements in 34 CFR § 99.33, which provides that the personally identifiable information may only be used for the purpose for which the disclosure was made (e.g., school safety and security) and limits re-disclosure of the student’s educational records;
  4. The SRO meets the school’s definition of a “school official” provided in its annual notification of FERPA rights and has a “legitimate educational interest” in the records.

If the school resource officer or other law enforcement official is not a “school official” acting with a “legitimate educational interest” then the school may not disclose a student’s educational and health records without the prior written consent of the parent unless an exception applies. (i.e. health or safety emergency explained above.)

A Quick Note About Parental Leave

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers may not discriminate against employees on the basis of several protected classes, including sex. Thus, courts and administrative agencies have interpreted Title VII to prohibit an employer from engaging in discrimination related to pregnancy, childbirth or maternity/paternal leave. Employers must treat a woman who is disabled due to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions in a similar manner to other disabled employees. However, any additional benefits provided to male or female parents, whether discretionary or mandated by statutes such as the Family and Medical Leave Act, must be made available in a non-discriminatory fashion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has stressed the importance of employers clearly explaining the types of leave available to all employees. Employers should distinguish between leave related to the physical limitations due to pregnancy or childbirth and leave related to bonding with or providing care for a child. An employer may limit leave related to the physical conditions of pregnancy or childbirth to the women affected by these conditions. However, if an employer extends leave to new mothers beyond the recuperation period of childbirth in order to care or bond with the baby, an equivalent amount of leave must be available to fathers for the same purpose.

This guidance was put into practice in 2017 when a class of male employees filed a lawsuit against JP Morgan Chase (“Chase”). A group of male employees alleged that Chase’s parental leave provisions were discriminatory in violation of Title VII. Chase allowed a parent to take 16 weeks of paid parental leave if they were the primary caregiver to the child. Chase automatically granted this additional leave to women. When male employees applied for this leave, however, they were required to prove that their partner had returned to work or was incapable of caring for the child. If the male employees could not make this showing, Chase provided a mere 2 weeks of paid leave. In May of 2019, Chase ultimately agreed to settle the dispute for $5 million and agreed to maintain a gender-neutral leave policy moving forward.

If your district offers maternity leave strictly to women who are disabled due to pregnancy, childbirth or related conditions, you do not need to offer the same kind of leave to men. However, if your district offers additional leave to allow the mother to bond or care for the child, then the father is entitled to the same leave as the mother would be. Lastly, regardless of the district’s parental leave policy, it is important that all districts ensure that they do not discriminate hen determining who is eligible for parental leave.

You can review guidance on this topic from the EEOC. EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Pregnancy Discrimination and Related Issues, Number 915.003, (June 25, 2015). Click here to access it.