Texas Christian school plans to hold in-person classes despite county ban

A Christian school in Texas 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 the stated 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 on Tuesday to Cameron County Chief Legal Counsel Juan Gonzalez about the matter.

“LMCA certainly appreciates the delicate situation presented by COVID-19,” wrote Dys. “Nonetheless, we must insist that Cameron County respect the laws and fundamental freedoms of this state and nation.”

Dys cited guidance issued by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in July stating that private schools are exempted from orders closing in-person public school instruction.

“We need not restate General Paxton’s legal analysis, nor the copious citations he made to cases from the Supreme Court of the United States and the Supreme Court of Texas that outline a fundamental principle that cannot be neglected, even in the face of a worldwide pandemic,” continued Dys.

“… private, 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.”

The academy plans to implement public health measures, including limiting the facility to students and essential staff, checking temperatures and wearing facemasks.

Last Thursday, Gonzalez rejected the Academy’s plan to reopen and rejected the guidance provided by Paxton earlier this year.

“Cameron county is of the opinion that Paxton’s guidance is not grounded in legitimate or correct legal analysis,” wrote Gonzalez, as reported by local media outlet KVEO. “Further, it is nothing more than an opinion and does not have controlling legal authority over the situation.”

In his July 17 letter to private schools, Paxton argued that even if a county government has a compelling interest to shut down schools, “blanket government orders closing all religious private schools are not the least restrictive means of achieving that interest.”

“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,” Paxton wrote. “Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary.”

Dys told KVEO that if the county decides to take action against the school, “we’ll have no choice but to make a very vigorous defense.”

“The law is fairly clear on this, while the county can certainly ask and make requests, and provide good information useful to the decision-making process of these religious institutions, [the schools] are entitled to a degree of autonomy under Supreme Court law and in the law of the state of Texas as well,” Dys said. 

Dys' letter comes as religious schools in California have filed a lawsuit over Gov. Gavin Newsom's order that closes both public and private schools in California as part of the state's continued lockdown in response to the novel coronavirus.

In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency order earlier this month clarifying that private schools are exempt from orders mandating the closure of schools until October.

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