Sixth Circuit: Ohio County Violated Christian Schools’ Religious Freedom with COVID-19 Order

Just as churches have sued governments for violating their rights during the COVID-19 crisis, Christian schools have filed similar lawsuits. A group of Christian schools in Ohio just scored a temporary victory.

The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department ordered all government, private, and religious schools that serve children in grades seven through 12 to stop in-person instruction for five weeks to slow the spread of the virus. Nine Christian schools filed a lawsuit, alleging that the order violated their First Amendment rights. The schools also expressed concerns about how closures would affect the mental and spiritual health of the students.

A federal appeals court last week agreed and ruled in their favor.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit noted (7-page PDF) that the county allowed gyms, tanning salons, office buildings, and a large casino to remain open. The court contended that the order “treats the plaintiffs’ schools less favorably than it does ‘comparable secular facilities.'”

The panel granted the schools’ motion for an injunction pending appeal.

The same court in November decided against a coalition of 17 schools that sued Kentucky for stopping in-person instruction. The court ruled that the governor’s restrictions didn’t violate religious freedom. The Sixth Circuit made a distinction between that ruling and present one:

That case, like this one, involved an order closing “all public and private schools” in the relevant jurisdiction. And we have no quarrel with the conclusion in Beshear that the order there—considered solely within its four corners—did not discriminate against Danville Christian Academy in violation of the Free Exercise Clause. Id. at 509. But our opinion there said nothing about the question that the plaintiffs present here: namely, whether an order closing public and parochial schools violates the Clause if it leaves other comparable secular actors less restricted than the closed parochial schools.

The global pandemic and a more divisive political atmosphere have tested our American ideals of freedom and personal liberty. Both have put a strain on the Republic and its people. How the country will survive the viral and political crises remains to be seen. But what we can do — what we must do — is continue to fight for freedom and preserve the U.S. Constitution, even in the midst of turmoil in our country and in the world.

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