John Hagee, Cornerstone Christian Schools file lawsuit to resume in-person classes in August

Students seen in a high school classroom. | Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Evangelist John Hagee and several parents of children who attend Cornerstone Christian Schools are suing Texas local and county officials to allow the schools to open in August despite a local health order prohibiting in-person classes until Sept. 7.

Hagee, Cornerstone Christian Schools, Cornerstone Church and Global Evangelism Incorporated have been joined by parents in filing a lawsuit last week against Bexar County and San Antonio public officials over a directive issued by the local health department. 

Pastor John Hagee of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas giving the closing prayer at the ceremony celebrating the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, May 14, 2018. | (Screenshot: YouTube/NBC News)

According to the lawsuit, the directive issued by the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 purports to impose “restrictions on all public and private schools” that provide pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade instruction. 

Although the directive instructs schools not to open for in-person instruction until Sept. 7, Cornerstone Christian Schools is scheduled to reopen for in-person instruction on Aug. 17. 

Plaintiffs contend that an order prohibiting in-person instruction “infringes on the religious freedom enjoyed by private religious schools” because it tries to force the schools to close for in-person instruction against their “desires.” 

Further, the parents — a pediatric surgeon, a nurse and a Texas ranger — allege that they "may be forced to quit their job” if their kids’ in-person learning is not allowed until September. 

The plaintiffs asked the district court for a temporary restraining order against the local orders to allow for the school to have in-person classes with social distancing guidelines in place.

“Plaintiffs hold a sincere religious belief and seek to educate, and have their children educated, through the in-person instruction of Plaintiffs’ religious, educational institution to further those sincere beliefs,” the legal filing reads.

“The Texas Health & Safety Code … and the Directive impermissibly make Plaintiffs’ beliefs the object of their enforcement and, thus, are not facially neutral. Moreover, Defendants’ actions in enforcing the Directive are not generally applied.”

On July 17, the City of San Antonio Office of Emergency Management announced that all schools in Bexar County, private and public, would have remote learning until at least Sept. 7.

“We recognize the importance of re-opening schools,” San Antonio Metro Health Medical Director Dr. Junda Woo, who is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement.

“This directive considers the higher risk for spread of COVID-19 in schools due to their confined spaces, and the challenge for children in following social distancing and hygiene guidelines. Re-opening will happen in phases, based on COVID-19 metrics.”

The following week, Cornerstone Christian Schools posted a statement on Facebook explaining that they intend to give parents the option of having students attend classes online or in-person.

“We believe that parents should have the right to decide what is best for their families in the context of their children’s education,” Cornerstone stated. 

Cornerstone added that the schools are “implementing significant social distancing measures for in-person schooling” and were “blessed to have the classrooms, buildings, and overall space necessary to keep our kids safe while providing them the important educational, social and mental-health benefits associated with classroom instruction.”

Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent an official letter addressed to religious private schools explaining that they are exempt from official shutdown orders.

“Even if the government may have a compelling interest in closing certain aspects of society to contain the spread of a virus, blanket government orders closing all religious private schools are not the least restrictive means of achieving that interest,” wrote Paxton.

“Thus, as protected by the First Amendment and Texas law, religious private schools may continue to determine when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference. Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary.”

According to The San Antonio Express-News, city and county officials say they will continue asking private and religious schools to voluntarily comply with the health directive. 

“I think what Dr. Woo has done is not an overreach,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Tuesday, according to the newspaper. “All she’s simply saying at this stage is wait until Sept. 7."

“I hope that we can work with the schools and get that worked out without having to continue the litigation," he added. "I think it’s in the best interests of the parents, the children and everybody here in the community.”

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