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St. John's Lutheran School In Lombard Begins Student Mask Exemptions Amid Protests, Staff Resignations

LOMBARD, Ill. (CBS) -- Dozens of masks are off at one west suburban grade school.

Student mask exemptions at St. John's Lutheran School in Lombard began this week and have pushed about a sixth of the school's staff members out the door in protest. CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov found a loophole making it legal – for now.

Tuesday marked the second day of widespread exemptions at St. John Lutheran School. Parents and a former staffer said at least 30 families filled out a "religious right of conscience exemption" form so their students would not have to wear masks.

That is more than 10 percent of the St. John's student population.

"We need to keep our families strong, and we all think and feel how we do and we're entitled to that," said parent Sheryn Panfil. "But I'm not pushing one way or the other."

"I think it's really – it's kind of left up to the family; to the parents," added parent Kara Zurich.

It is the culmination of a two-month, often-divisive debate within the small private school's community. Some families have left, and five staff members have even resigned in protest – saying they felt their concerns were not respected.

The latest was a fifth-grade teacher who sent a heartfelt note to families this week announcing she was leaving. She wrote in part: "There are many factors that contributed to my decision, many of which involve the events and decisions of the past several months. I will not go into details, as I do not feel it is ethically right to do so, but ultimately, though it breaks my heart to admit, I feel that God is calling me to put my health, and that of my family and loved ones, at the forefront in this."

"They did their best to support and stand as strong as they could, and had to do what was best for them," Panfil said.

St. John's Lutheran Church Senior Pastor Dan Wegrzyn even discussed the mask exemptions at church this past Sunday.

"So we interfaced with our governing board multiple times; with our elders, talked with doctors, and sought outside legal counsel who advised us that this is a legally allowable right in the State of Illinois," Wegrzyn told congregants.

But spokespeople for both Gov. JB Pritzker and the Illinois State Board of Education point out there is no religious exemption for the mask mandate.

An attorney for the school said right of conscience laws allow the exemption. Gov. Pritzker signed a law closing that loophole when it comes to prevention, but it does not go into effect until June 1.

St. John's attorney did not say what the school would do when that loophole closes, and nor did the state Board of Education.

The following is the full statement from attorney Sally Wagenmaker:

"St. John's Lutheran adheres to the Governor's' current mask mandate for schools. We believe it is prudent to continue to address all health-related concerns for our School community and to comply with all applicable legal requirements. Religious or medical exemptions to the mask mandate are available under disability and right of conscience laws.

"We do not want school masking to be a divisive topic. We therefore have encouraged all to have love, care and empathy for those with all perspectives, even if diametrically opposed to others, consistent with Biblical standards. Our objective remains to teach and disciple in-person every day. We desire to be a unified community striving toward that goal together."

The attorney also included this directive to Kozlov: "Additionally, you are hereby directed to not enter onto the Church and School's premises, which is private property, and to not speak with, harass, intimidate, or otherwise interfere with any staff, children, parents, or related ministry operations. This prohibition applies equally to any media colleagues with whom you may be working. You may direct any further inquiries to me as the Church and School's legal counsel, via email."

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