Opinion: First Amendment entitles government to mandate mask wearing

Is mandating masks unconstitutional? Some think so. For those that believe mandating masks is an assault on individual freedoms, please consider the following:

The first amendment asserts that the government cannot make laws that regulate the establishment of religion, freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition. Essentially, nothing in the first amendment addresses issues such as having the state mandate people in their jurisdiction wear masks when in public.

The most appropriate reference to the Constitution is Amendment 10 which basically says that in matters of health safety, the states have jurisdiction. So when the state says that to maintain safety, it is often the governor or state legislatures’ call. There are numerous examples of the state asserting its right to protect the health and safety of its citizens. 

Most states require wearing orange vests while hunting or wearing a seatbelt while driving or requiring liability insurance when operating a vehicle. Most states establish rules for speed limits, drinking ages, use of firearms in public places, etc. 

What do these scenarios have in common? They are all constitutional and were established through congressional or lawful gubernatorial action. They all have to do with the safety of the community.  The pandemic has created a confusing mixture of laws and standards for mask-wearing.

The wearing of masks is conditional on what state, what public arena, or what business. When state and local officials ask citizens to wear a mask for the protection of others, the outrage that it restricts personal freedoms is significant but misguided. COVID-rule-breakers are not being threatened with arrest or imprisonment and in most cases, they aren’t even fined. 

 It is understood that people are tired of the pandemic and annoyed with state and local officials in charge of public safety. However, if Montanans (and Americans in general) have any respect for the health of their neighbors, their fellow Americans, they should pay at least a minimal amount of respect for the health of others.

It is the constitutional responsibility of the state and county and additionally the national government to see to the health and protection of its citizens. In a time of a pandemic when 250,000 lives have been lost to the virus, state governments have had to step up to address health risks. So when local governments and businesses implore their citizens and customers to wear a mask, it is without question, constitutional.

Is it moral?  Let me refer you to the famous quote from Schindler’s List: One who saves a life saves the world entirely. Mandating mask-wearing is a policy to prevent the spread of a deadly virus. Just like the aforementioned laws that help protect fellow citizens, by following the mask policy, citizens are respecting the health and welfare of fellow Americans.

One person can make a difference. If even one citizen displays humanity to another, they demonstrate the continuing existence of humanity in society.  This applies to Americans of all stripes. For our society and our communities to continue to flourish, selflessness and kindness must exist.

David R. James, 40 years teaching, MA, Ph.D. History