Oregon sued for shuttering religious schools while allowing public schools to reopen in-person

Hermiston Christian School
Hermiston Christian School | Facebook/Hermiston Christian School

A small Christian school in Oregon has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Gov. Kate Brown and several other high-ranking officials for restricting in-person instruction in private, religious schools during the coronavirus pandemic while allowing public schools to reopen.

In the lawsuit filed last Friday by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Hermiston Christian School, it is alleged that Brown repeatedly assured the leaders of the school located in Umatilla County that they would be able to provide in-person instruction to the 51 students enrolled in its K-12 program as long as they met certain health guidelines.

Brown reversed course on July 29, however, and ordered private schools in the county and other parts of the state to close while exempting public schools with 75 or fewer students. School officials that violate the order can be jailed for 30 days and fined $1,250.

“While responding to crises can be difficult, this case is not. There is no legitimate reason for allowing public schools with 75 or fewer students to provide in-person instruction while denying the same opportunity to small private schools, including religious ones,” ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said in a statement.

“Hermiston Christian School operates in the same county as a public school that is open, and it operates with the same number of students, who are performing the same type of activity, working in an even larger physical environment, and complying with the same health and safety protocols. Gov. Brown’s refusal to extend the same treatment to Hermiston Christian School as she does to small public schools violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against parents who choose to provide a religious education for their children.”

Other defendants named in the lawsuit with Brown are: Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education; Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority; Joseph Fiumara Jr., director of the Umatilla County Public Health Department; Travis Hampton, superintendent of the Oregon State Police; and Terry Rowan, Umatilla County Sheriff.

Assured by Gov. Brown that they would have been allowed to resume in-person classes, Hermiston Christian School maintained staff and spent money to ensure they met or exceeded the state’s health and safety protocols for in-person instruction.

Earlier this month, the school shared photos on its Facebook page highlighting some of those updates.

On Sept. 16, the Oregon Department of Education granted Hermiston initial approval as an Emergency Child Care Facility for school-aged children and, after conducting a virtual inspection of school facilities, noted that Hermiston Christian’s “facility is very clean and organized. [Staff] were very well prepared and are following the Health and Safety Guidelines.”  

The Umatilla County Public Health Department later advised the school, however, that it was not permitted to provide in-person instruction even if the students are in its facilities for childcare.

The lawsuit argued that the school was being treated unfairly because a policy adviser and liaison for Brown had raised concern about the potential for a “mass exodus” of children from public schools and emphasized that public schools could suffer a reduction in funding if students disenrolled to obtain education elsewhere.

“Gov. Brown’s personal preference for public over private education does not permit her to discriminate against faith-based schools,” ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman argued in a statement on the case.

“Oregon’s Department of Education has personally evaluated Hermiston Christian School and found that it is a safe place for school-aged children to spend full days, but the very same department threatens imprisonment and fines if the school dares to educate those very same children while they’re in the building. Public health crises do not suspend the Constitution or permit elected leaders to favor secular public schools by granting them unique exceptions.”

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