A federal court ordered a local health department in Ohio to pay two Christian organizations over $137,000 in attorney fees over an order that led to the closure of faith-based schools during the COVID-19 pandemic while secular businesses remained open.
The Center for Christian Virtue and the Ohio Christian Education Network filed a lawsuit in December 2020 on behalf of its member schools, including Monclova Christian Academy and St John's Jesuit, one month after the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department ordered a temporary halt of in-person instruction in Lucas County to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Shannon Jones, the department's interim health commissioner, told The Christian Post in a Thursday statement that the attorney fees were awarded following the issuance of a permanent injunction in December 2020.
"We respect the decision of the Court but disagree with its conclusion that the Board of Health acted improperly, especially since, when the appeal was declared to be moot, and the case dismissed, there was no opportunity to test the validity of the preliminary injunction issued against the Board," Jones told CP.
"Furthermore, during this time (December of 2020), in closing the schools for a brief period over the Christmas holiday, the Board acted in the best interests of public health," she continued.
While the department's order meant that all schools within the county had to close, gyms, tanning salons, office buildings and large casinos were permitted to remain open, according to the complaint.
At the time of the health department's order, many public schools had already ceased in-person instruction, and many of the schools still open were Christian institutions.
Lawyers representing the schools argued that the faith-based institutions adhered to social distancing standards before the shutdown, and few transmission cases had been documented. The schools believe the order violated their First Amendment rights, as the restrictions were not equally applied to secular businesses.
"This victory sends a message to every government bureaucrat that the First Amendment does not take a hiatus, even in times of crisis," Aaron Baer, president of the Center for Christian Virtue, said in a Wednesday statement to CP. "You cannot make Christians, or any people of faith, second-class citizens. If you try to, the Constitution still stands strong to protect our free exercise of faith."
In December 2020, a three-judge panel on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals granted the nine Christian schools' request for an injunction against the health department's order, reversing a lower court ruling that found the order did not violate the schools' First Amendment rights.
Attorneys Brian Fox of Roetzel & Andress and Michael Roberts of Bricker Graydon filed the appeal to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals after the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio denied the injunction. A few days before the appeals court decision, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed an amicus brief to support returning to in-person instruction.
Fox praised OCEN and the Christian schools for filing the lawsuit and seeing it through despite public scrutiny and what he described as "unfair accusations," such as "They don't believe in modern science/medicine" and "They don't care if people die."
"Despite that, they stuck to their convictions and battled forward to a landmark victory that reopened Christian schools to in-person instruction across Lucas County and — more broadly — they changed the legal landscape for all Ohioans," Fox stated. "This case has even developed a life beyond our litigation as it's been cited as precedent in similar First Amendment cases across the country (and was even footnoted by Justice Clarence Thomas in one of his dissents). I feel honored to have helped defend the First Amendment alongside such courageous individuals and organizations."
Baer contends that information regarding the "devastating impact" of COVID-19 school closures is still emerging. He praised the Christian schools throughout the country for "stepping up and innovating to find ways to help serve children and families."