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Michigan county shuts down Christian school amid court battle over COVID-19 orders

Michigan county shuts down Christian school amid court battle over COVID-19 orders

Libertas Christian School was shut down by Ottawa County, Michigan, on Oct. 23, 2020, after two teachers contracted COVID-19. | FOX17 Michigan

A Michigan county shut down a Christian school Thursday night, accusing it of violating a state and local health department mask mandate and other protocols. 

Libertas Christian School, a private, nondenominational Bible-based school with over 265 students in Hudsonville, was officially closed down by the Ottawa County Health Department before classes could be held on Friday, Fox 17 reported

Last Sunday, the school filed a lawsuit against the state and local health department, challenging the state’s mask mandate. That led the OCDPH to issue additional cease-and-desist orders, later culminating in the school's closure. 

While two teachers who work at the school had tested positive for COVID-19, both recovered and were cleared by their doctors to return to work. Similarly, two students had tested positive for the virus, having contracted it off the school's premises, and were cleared by their doctors to return to school. 

As of Friday, there have been zero COVID-19 positive cases among faculty and students, according to updated records on the school's website. 

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The school's attorney, Ian Northon, told Fox 17, that since last Sunday the county has been calling a teacher to demand that she hand over the names of students in her second-grade class, and even threatened her with "imprisonment,” Northon said.

"They’re trying to now claim that a two-week-old potential exposure is now an imminent threat," Northon told The Detroit News.

Douglas Van Essen, a lawyer for the Ottawa County Health Department, said the health department never threatened the teacher. 

"I can assure you that while someone may have advised her that she had to quarantine, no one threatened to arrest her if she left her house," Van Essen told The Detroit News. "We are not enforcing against the teacher. We are enforcing against the school, which has a legal duty to report the close contact information."

The OCDPH, contends that the school failed to notify the department regarding potential exposure. 

On Friday morning the health department issued a press release about the school's closure, stating:

"On Thursday, October 22, 2020, the OCDPH issued a final cease-and-desist order to Libertas Christian School in Hudsonville where there is an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, and the school refuses to mask or engage in social distancing. The OCDPH made numerous attempts over the last several weeks trying to partner with the school and contain the spread of the virus. However, by their willful failure to provide information about the people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 — and not requiring students and staff to adhere to the health and safety mandates issued by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, including quarantini — the OCDPH had a legal obligation to pursue further action."

The county had set a deadline for noon Friday for the school to comply with its orders.

“If necessary we will seek law enforcement vehicles on Friday to block entry,” Van Essen, told the school’s attorney, according to mlive.com.

On Friday, Northon, the school’s lead counsel, asked a federal court to call an immediate halt to the school’s closure but the plea was denied.

Western U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney argued that the health department did not violate any court orders and that its action did not have an effect on religious liberties.

“The closure was due to Libertas’ unwillingness to comply with orders that did not implicate religious beliefs or exercise, at least on the record before this court,” wrote Maloney, according to The Detroit News.

In its lawsuit, the school — which has chapel in the mornings and prayer before each class — argued that its activities were religious in nature and exempt under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services COVID-19 orders.

Even without those exemptions, the school argued that state’s orders violate its constitutional rights to freedom of association and freedom of religion and family integrity and education, the school argued.

While the case is being seen as precedent-setting, the school’s leadership has little interest in that.

“We just want to be left alone to pursue a classical Christian education as desired by our parents,” said Bob Davis, the school's headmaster.

The coronavirus cases are rising in the county and schools should cooperate, Van Essen, was quoted as saying.

During an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week, Whitmer told her constituents that if they wanted to go back to church, they must vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 election.

Host Chuck Todd asked Whitmer how she was “going to account for lockdown fatigue in your efforts this time to convince your constituents to abide by the rules.” After trashing President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic as “the worst in the globe,” Whitmer suggested that the best way to “account for lockdown fatigue” was to support Biden.

“If you’re tired of lockdowns or you’re tired of wearing masks or you wish you were in church this morning or watching college football, or your kids were [in] in-person instruction, it is time for change in this country, and that’s why we’ve got to elect Joe Biden,” she said.

Whitmer is not the only governor to face criticism over ongoing coronavirus lockdowns seven months after citizens were first told the lockdowns would only be for 15 days.

Multiple religious leaders have sued Gov. Gavin Newsom over continued restrictions imposed on places of worship during the pandemic. Even stricter worship restrictions were imposed by the city of San Francisco, where only one person was allowed to enter a church at a time, leading many Catholics to march in protest last month.

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