Federal court sides with Ohio Christian schools suing to stop COVID-19 closures

Emmanuel Christian School
Emmanuel Christian School in Toledo, Ohio, one of several Christian schools suing the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department over its order banning in-person instruction for students in grades seven through 12. |

A federal appellate court has sided with a group of faith-based schools in Ohio seeking to overturn a decision by their county’s health department mandating the closure of schools to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

In a ruling published last Thursday, a three-judge panel on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals granted a request filed by nine Christian schools’ for an injunction against a Toledo-Lucas County Health Department order. The injunction request was granted pending an appeal. 

The health department's order requires that all schools that serve kids in grades seven through 12 cease in-person instruction for five weeks. 

Lucas County Regional Health District Resolution No. 2020.11.189 ordered all public, private, charter and parochial schools for students in grades seven through 12 to close between Dec. 7 and Jan. 8. 

The schools believe that the order violates their First Amendment rights because similar restrictions were not placed on comparable secular businesses. The panel of judges assigned to the case agreed with their assessment.

“In Lucas County, the plaintiffs’ schools are closed, while gyms, tanning salons, office buildings, and the Hollywood Casino remain open,” the unsigned opinion stated. 

“The Resolution’s restrictions therefore impose greater burdens on the plaintiffs’ conduct than on secular conduct.”

The appellate court’s ruling reversed a lower court ruling that found that the order did not violate the schools’ First Amendment rights. 

As a result of the ruling, “The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department is enjoined, during the pendency of this appeal, from enforcing Resolution No. 2020.11.189 or otherwise prohibiting in-person attendance at the plaintiffs’ schools.”

The plaintiffs in the case are Monclova Christian Academy, St. John’s Jesuit High School and Academy, Emmanuel Christian School and six schools affiliated with the Ohio Christian Education Network. The network is managed by the conservative Christian advocacy group Citizens for Community Values. 

In addition to maintaining that the health department’s order violated their First Amendment rights, the plaintiffs expressed concern about the impact that a prolonged pause of in-person learning would have on the mental and spiritual health of their students.

The judges frequently cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, which overturned restrictions placed on houses of worship in New York, in their opinion. 

Specifically, the judges noted that the Cuomo decision determined that secular facilities and schools and churches pose a “comparable” risk of coronavirus spread yet stronger restrictions were imposed on religious organizations than on their secular counterparts.

“Today’s order is a victory for families, for religious freedom, and for all those willing to courageously stand up against unnecessary and overreaching government orders,” Aaron Baer, the president of Citizens for Community Values, said in a statement praising the ruling. “Lucas County families have suffered plenty through this pandemic, and to unreasonably deny their children in-person education is unconscionable.”

“The First Amendment does not take a holiday break. It was clear from the outset that the Lucas County Health Board’s order closing schools violated the Constitution. It is indefensible and irrational to block children from accessing in-person instruction, while allowing casinos, gyms, liquor stores, and other public places to remain open,” he added. 

Just a few days before the 6th Circuit published its decision, the office of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, filed a brief on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Citing the fact that “arbitrary restrictions limiting in-person instruction for months on end have inflicted immeasurable harm on children,” Solicitor General Ben Flowers concluded that “An injunction allowing the plaintiffs to provide in-person instruction will thus advance the state’s compelling interest in ensuring that Ohio’s children remain free to pursue a high-quality education.”

A survey conducted by Gallup found that Americans who attend church regularly were the only group of people who did not see the state of their mental health decline in 2020, a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. In their initial complaint, the plaintiff schools described “faith-based instruction” as “an act of worship.”

In November, the 6th Circuit issued a ruling in favor of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear's executive order prohibiting in-person learning at public and private elementary, middle and high schools. On Dec. 18, the Kentucky Department of Education issued guidance on reopening schools for in-person learning in January. 

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