A federal judge in Oregon has ruled against three Christian schools seeking to re-open for in-person learning this fall, arguing that the state’s restrictions on in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic are constitutional.
U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman ruled in favor of Gov. Kate Brown’s June executive order last Thursday and denied a motion by Horizon Christian School, McMinnville Christian Academy and Life Christian School.
“In my view the religious institutions here in K-through-12 aren’t being treated in any way differently than public K-through-12 institutions,” U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman ruled, according to Oregon Live.
John Kaempf, an attorney representing the three schools, argued that the schools want to be “treated the same as universities and daycare centers,” which are allowed to open for in-person instruction.
The lawsuit claims that Brown’s order violates the First Amendment rights of the institutions.
“Zoom learning is not what Christian learning is about,” Kaempf contended in court, according to the Associated Press. “My clients are called to communal in person faith-based learning.”
Oregon attorney Marc Abrams argued that the restrictions in place were necessary due to the risk to public health caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Brown’s executive order initially allowed in-person learning at public and private K-12 schools with the condition that they follow guidance by the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Education.
But under Brown’s extended order, a county must have 10 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents and have 5% or fewer positive tests per week to reopen for in-person instruction. Also, the state must have 5% or fewer positives tests.
According to a report from The Oregonian last week, 5.4% of tests statewide are coming back positive while the statewide infection rate was 50 per 100,000 residents. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been nearly 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oregon since the pandemic began.
The schools argued that their institutions will be “irreparably harmed” and could be forced to close entirely if they are not allowed to hold in-person classes.
“Religious schools serve as an essential service,” the schools’ legal filing reads. “The educational, psychosocial, and emotional wellbeing of plaintiffs’ students must take precedence. Not only is plaintiffs’ student’s wellbeing on the line during the pandemic, but so is plaintiffs’ viability as religious organizations.”
However, Mosman, a George W. Bush appointee, argued that the state’s interest in mitigating that spread of the virus outweighs the interests of the schools.
“The harm the state is trying to prevent is death and not just death as in a few, but the possibility of a widespread pandemic killing our most vulnerable citizens,” Mosman was quoted as saying.
Other private schools in Oregon are also looking to open for in-person classes this fall.
Two schools in Deschutes County sent a letter to Brown on Aug. 10 asking her to re-examine the state’s metrics for school reopening to provide more lenient guidelines, according to The Redmond Spokesman.
Brown stated last week at a press conference that the infection rate in the state is “still too high to get our kids safely back into the classrooms in most of our schools this fall.”
“To keep students, teachers and staff safe in our schools across the state, we need to see a much more rapid decline in case numbers, and we need to see it quickly,” she said, according to The Chronicle.
Private Christian schools across the nation are facing similar struggles.
In Texas, a Christian school announced last week it plans to hold in-person classes with social distancing measures despite a county-wide ban on in-person public and private school classes to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
Laguna Madre Christian Academy in Port Isabel, a K-12 school, intends to resist an order enacted by officials in Cameron County with its plan to reopen on Aug. 31 for in-person instruction.
Jeremy Dys of the First Liberty Institute, a legal nonprofit that represents the academy, sent a letter to Cameron County Chief Legal Counsel Juan Gonzalez about the matter on Aug. 18.
“[P]rivate, religious institutions retain the freedom to determine when it is safe to resume in-person meetings or instruction, not the State of Texas, nor Cameron County. Cameron County’s order must yield,” Dys argued in the letter, citing earlier guidance from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stating that private schools are exempt from closing in-person instruction.
In California, religious schools are suing Gov. Gavin Newsom over his order prohibiting in-person instruction at public and private schools during the pandemic.