Louisiana AG Jeff Landry advises his employees on how to circumvent school COVID-19 restrictions

Landry, citing scripture, says religious freedom laws can be used to avoid school mask mandate

By: - August 3, 2021 8:21 am
Jeff Landry sues ULM med school over vaccine mandate

Attorney General Jeff Landry and elected officials from other state sued over President Joe Biden’s decision to pause oil and gas leases.(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Attorney General Jeff Landry sent a departmentwide email blast to his employees Monday suggesting strategies for getting students out of the mask mandate that will be imposed in K-12 schools — as well as any school vaccine requirements that could be imposed in the future.

Landry’s recommendations went out to people at the Louisiana Department of Justice about two hours before Gov. John Bel Edwards reinstated the statewide indoor mask mandate. Edwards put the mandate in place again in part because of an alarming increase in the number of children hospitalized with COVID-19. 

Landry, a Republican, told his employees they could use state laws to claim either a religious or philosophical objection to the mask mandate for students — and any future vaccine requirement. 

“Louisiana law offers broad and robust protections for students’ and parents’ religious and philosophical objections to certain state public health policies. I support your religious liberties and right to conscientiously object,” Landry wrote.

A copy of Landry’s email was provided by a Louisiana Department of Justice employee. Millard Mule, a spokesman for Landry, confirmed Monday evening that the attorney general sent the email. 

The email was sent the same day that Louisiana crossed the threshold of 11,000 COVID-19 deaths. The state is in the middle of its fourth COVID-19 surge — which the governor described as the most dangerous one yet. 

Louisiana has the highest growth in COVID-19 cases of any state in the country, and on Tuesday, the state is expected to hit an all-time high of COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

The state is facing these challenges, state officials say, because such a large percentage of Louisiana residents refuse to get vaccinated. The overwhelming majority of people hospitalized and dying from COVID-19 in Louisiana are not vaccinated, according to hospital officials. 

Children are also more vulnerable to the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus than they were to previous strains of the virus, said Mark Kline, physician-in-chief at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. Kline said he believes all children’s hospitals in Louisiana are “absolutely full.”

“I am as worried about our children today as I have ever been,” Kline said. “There was a myth that circulated during the first year of the epidemic that children, somehow, were immune.”

Kline said about half the children being treated in hospital for COVID-19 were healthy — and had no health vulnerabilities — before getting sick with this illness.

“Children are being heavily impacted by this organism and by this pandemic at this point,” he said. “Vaccination is clearly the answer to the question of how we ultimately get out of this.” 

Yet for weeks, Landry has been jumping to the defense of Louisiana citizens who don’t want to be vaccinated. The attorney general has advised LSU against issuing a COVID-19 vaccine mandate — and is threatening to sue a medical school in Northeast Louisiana over its vaccine policy. Landry also won’t say whether he has been vaccinated personally. 

In the Monday email to his employees, Landry offered two form letters — one for people who want to claim a religious exemption and one for people who want to claim a philosophical exemption to mask and vaccine requirements for K-12 students. . 

He cited three Louisiana laws across the two letters as precedent for a vaccine and mask exemption. But he also said the letters shouldn’t be interpreted as his legal opinion.

“Please know this is not legal advice; rather, it is providing you with information you may choose to use,” Landry wrote employees.

All schools are expected to implement a mask mandate by at least Wednesday, though no K-12 school is known to have mandated a COVID-19 vaccine requirement yet.

Landry’s religious exemption form letter comes from a Christian perspective. It cites several passages from the New Testament of the Bible — which is not significant for Jews, Muslims or people in most other faith traditions.

“I believe that Christians are called to communicate God’s words and message of love to the world. See Luke 9:2,” reads one portion of the form letter. 

“I do not consent to forcing a face covering on my child, who is created in the image of God,” reads the form letter Landry suggests his employees use. “Masks lead to anti-social behaviors, interfere with religious commands to share God’s love with others, and interfere with relationships in contravention with the Bible.” 

In the letter, Landry said parents and grandparents should also object to children being forced to take a COVID-19 vaccine on the grounds that the nation’s vaccine program is a “medical experiment.” The letter also states people should object to vaccine mandates because the vaccines available in the United States were developed using “fetal stem cell lines” derived from abortions decades ago.

Pope Francis said Catholics have a moral obligation to get the vaccine because of its life-saving powers, in spite of the connection to abortion. The cells used to develop the vaccines are far enough removed from the abortions that it doesn’t pose a moral problem, according to the Vatican. 

In the philosophical exemption form letter, Landry takes a different approach. He argues that federal disability laws allow parents or guardians to object to a school’s mask or vaccine mandate — though it’s not clear how. The letter doesn’t explain why a child whose family doesn’t want him or her vaccinated would be entitled to the same treatment as a child with a disability.

The philosophical exemption letter goes on to say that families could object to school mask mandates on the grounds that face coverings impose “risks on my child’s mental and emotional health by hindering verbal and nonverbal communication.” 

Landry also suggests in this form letter that cloth masks do not help cut down on transmission of the virus. The statement goes against what months of research has suggested about the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control is recommending people wear cloth masks in public spaces

The attorney general argues that children should be granted mask mandate exemptions because they face “minimal risk of hospitalization or death from COVID,” even though, as Kline and other doctors have been saying, hospitals have seen a staggering increase in the number of children being admitted with serious COVID-19 illness. 

Our Lady of the Lake — the state’s largest hospital — said it has had 58 children test positive for COVID-19 in its emergency room over the last two weeks. Only 18 children in the emergency room had tested positive during the entire month of June, according to Ryan Cross, spokesman for the hospital system.

Landry’s religious and philosophical exemption arguments both rely on the same law that allows parents and guardians to opt their students out of vaccines with a “written dissent.” But the law also allows schools to keep students who haven’t been vaccinated out of their buildings in the event of a disease outbreak.

There’s also not a lot of clarity about how much leeway religious exemptions provide in the face of vaccine mandates. Courts have largely been siding with the elected officials and institutions enacting a vaccine requirement in other states, but more legal challenges are expected.

Regardless, Edwards is frustrated with elected officials — like Landry — who are still casting doubt on the vaccine’s effectiveness.

“If you’re a citizen out there or you’re a parish president or you’re sitting on a school board or whatever, and you’re thinking, ‘Man I just don’t want to do this.’ What public health expert are you consulting? What epidemiologist are you talking to? What data are you looking at?” Edwards asked.

“Did you hear a word that was said up here about what’s happening in Louisiana? Do you give a damn?,” Edwards said at Monday’s news conference. “I’ve heard it said often: Louisiana is the most pro-life state in the nation. I want to believe that. It ought to mean something. In this context, it ought to mean something.”

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press.