Accidental Infringements: Religious Rights & the City of Ames Mask Ordinance

Accidental Infringements: Religious Rights & the City of Ames Mask Ordinance

UPDATE: The Ames City Attorney provided this clarification:

It is not a violation of the ordinance to remove a mask while eating or drinking in any setting.  Yes, the ordinance says “at a food establishment” but my interpretation of that sentence would be anytime a person is eating and drinking.  For example, a person eating or drinking while sitting on a park bench wouldn’t be violating the ordinance either.  Obviously, the mask needs to come down in order for the person to eat.  And communion would be a time that it would be perfectly acceptable for a person to remove his/her face covering. . . . Certainly removing the face coverings during communion, or by a person speaking at a church with adequate social distancing from the congregation, meet the intent of the ordinance and would not be seen as violating the ordinance.  The same would hold true with an immersion baptism.

I’m thankful for the City’s willingness to accommodate churches.

I previously wrote a letter to the editor, disagreeing with our Governor’s statements that prohibiting mass gatherings infringes on the religious liberties of local churches (provided that churches were not targeted or unfairly treated). I made that objection because I believe it is important to stand on principle—and not to applaud a statement because it allows our preferences despite it violating our principles.

I do not believe that requiring religious gatherings to wear face coverings violates our religious liberties (as churches are not singled out). However, I do think that, as written, the current ordinance does infringe upon our religious rights in one area (see below).

I do not believe any member of the City Council holds ill-intent toward spiritual communities. Nor do I believe they intended to target church or infringe on our rights in this ordinance. But that doesn’t change the fact that it technically violates our religious freedoms. An accidental infringement on religious liberties is still a matter of concern.

Therefore, I’ve written the following letter (respectful but firm, I trust), appealing to them to grant an exemption while participating in religious practices that involve eating and drinking. (This doesn’t pertain simply to Christians.)

I’m not posting this to shame the City of Ames or to have a “gotcha” moment or to instigate revolt against an oversight. Instead, I want to highlight how easily religious rights may be overlooked. I also want to set an example of being consistent on a principled view of the separation of church and state—saying both, “No, Governor; this is not a matter of religious liberties” and “Hold up, City Council! You’re prohibiting from practicing my faith!” I trust it is valuable.

I will update this post as we hear more from the city.

Dear Mayor and City Council,

I’m writing regarding Ordinance No. 4420 to ask for an exemption for religious assemblies while engaged in worship practices that involve eating and drinking.

Face coverings are not required “when seated inside or outside at a food establishment in the process of eating or drinking.” However, a house of worship is not a food establishment.

Houses of worship have religious practices that involve eating and drinking (e.g., communion in Christian churches). However, the ordinance as written provides no exemption for mask removal during such religious practices.

As it stands, for us to practice our faith in this act of worship, we are required to disobey our city government and break the law. As a Christian, I take seriously our responsibility to both honor and obey human governments. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to obey our conscience before the Lord over the commands of humans.

Since it only requires a brief moment for us to eat and drink communion together, this seems less dangerous than eating and drinking at a food establishment. Therefore, I will encourage our church leadership to break the law and disobey the ordinance to worship according to our faith and practice. However, we would much prefer that you make an exemption so that there is no conflict between our religious practice and local law.

I am disappointed that the City Council, in a rush to approve this ordinance, seems to have shown little concern for how it impacts the spiritual communities in Ames (as in this issue and in having no exemption for suitably distanced service leaders). Asking religious leaders to provide feedback on the ordinance may have prevented unnecessary confusion, conflict, and frustration. (I planned to alert you to these conflicts between the first and second readings, but your actions to bypass further readings prevented that.)

I am thankful for your service to our city, especially during these difficult days.

Thank you for your consideration.


Eric Schumacher