A group of Ohio Christian schools filed a lawsuit against their local health department over its order to close all schools serving students in grades seven through 12 for six weeks to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The Ohio Christian Education Network, which describes itself as “a coalition of schools and community members who stand for freedom in education and want to support initiatives that prevent the government from intruding on the right of Christian schools to teach Gospel-centered principles,” joined with three Christian schools to file the lawsuit in federal court against the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, alleging that the blanket school closures violate the freedom to worship guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“For many parents, teachers, and private school administrators, providing faith-based instruction is an act of worship,” the complaint, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, says.
“First Amendment freedoms don’t go on a holiday break,” said Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values, which operates the Ohio Christian Education Network. “The Lucas County Health Department has not only violated the religious liberty rights of Christian schools and students by denying them the right to provide religious instruction, but they’ve threatened the mental health and futures of Lucas County children.”
Baer accused the Lucas County Health Department of abiding by double standards when it comes to coronavirus restrictions: “Despite all the medical evidence and experts that continue to say one of the safest places for children to be is in school, Lucas County has taken aggressive action to deny children the right to in-person education. Meanwhile, they’ve let casinos, strip clubs, liquor stores, and concerts continue. We cannot sit idly by while children and freedoms are being harmed.”
The complaint references comments made by Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, who asserted that “the truth is, for kids K-12, one of the safest places they can be, from our perspective, is to remain in school,” describing it as “counterproductive … from a public health point of view, just in containing the epidemic, if there was an emotional response to say, ‘Let’s close the schools.’”
Baer elaborated on his concerns in a video published Tuesday: “This order is a direct affront to our First Amendment religious liberties. These schools are not just about forming children in their academic performance but also forming them in the image of God, teaching them religious instruction. It’s interwoven in everything they do, in all of their classes, just like our faith is for all Christians.”
Brian Fox, attorney for the Ohio Christian Education Network, wrote a letter to Eric Zgodzinski, secretary of the Lucas County Regional Health Board of Directors, on Nov. 30, four days before the six-week ban on secondary education was slated to take effect. He urged the board to reconsider its decision to mandate the closure of secondary schools and offered the opportunity to resolve the concerns of his clients without resorting to legal action.
“Well-intended as the restrictions may be, the Resolution is unconstitutional because it lacks a narrowly tailored, compelling governmental interest to violate the First Amendment rights of Member Schools to freely exercise their religion,” Fox wrote.
“If the resolution is enforced through January 11th, Member Schools will be effectively barred from: (i) providing daily in-person mentorship and training of religious values for several grade levels (inarguably less effective in a virtual context), (ii) engaging in corporate prayer throughout the day, (iii) collectively sharing musical worship and communal recognition, and (iv) spiritually encouraging and praying for individual students (who may be profoundly suffering through the isolation of this pandemic,” he warned.
Fox maintained that “each of these religious rights and responsibilities is sacred to Member Schools and the families who choose private religious education, and – as a consequence – are guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
He further cited numerous studies detailing “the profound negative consequences forced quarantine and isolation causes among their demographic” as part of the plea to convince the health department to reconsider its decision.
“Across the country, this age group has seen exponential increases in severe depression, anxiety disorders, suicide attempts, substance abuse problems, and mental health-related pediatric emergency department visits,” he said, while pointing to the schools as a source of students’ “purpose, faith, and abiding hope.”