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Court rules with religious schools, stopping health department order of school closures

Susan Tebben, Ohio Capital Journal |

A U.S. Court of Appeals has granted the request of religious schools to conduct in-person classes if they choose, against the wishes of the local health department.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Monclova Christian Academy, St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy, Emmanuel Christian School, along with other schools and the religious lobby group Citizens for Community Values, in saying the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s closing of religious schools violates their rights under the constitution, despite the closure of all other schools along with the private schools.

The schools appealed after a U.S. District Court denied the request to lift the order.

With the ruling, the appeals court said the health department couldn’t enforce the resolution “or otherwise prohibit in-person attendance at the plaintiffs’ schools.”

The court used the health department’s argument that they are a “political subdivision” of the state against it, calling the department an “administrative arm” of the Ohio Department of Health. With no statewide order closing schools present from the Ohio Department of Health, the court said the local department couldn’t make such a rule itself.

The court also said the fact that the health department resolution made an exception for “religious educational classes or religious ceremonies” didn’t absolve the department of withholding religious rights.

“But the plaintiffs argue that the exercise of their faith is not so neatly compartmentalized,” the appeals court wrote. “To the contrary, they say, their faith pervades each day of in-person schooling…We have no basis to second-guess these representations.”

The office of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a brief in support of the religious schools’ right to meet in person, partly because of a lack of faith in remote learning.

“The public interest demands that schools willing to provide in-person instruction be permitted — indeed, encouraged — to do so,” Yost’s office wrote in court documents.

The health department filed a request for a re-hearing on Monday, saying the court’s order “now improperly favors the religious schools in Lucas County over all of the secular ones — a practice that the United States Supreme Court usually discourages.”

The department also said arguments saying the religious schools should be treated the same as secular businesses is flawed and requires reconsideration by the full court.

“The potential exposure to the coronavirus from the 30 minutes spent getting a tan, the 60 minutes spent working out, or 90 minutes spent for lunch is not comparable to the time spent by all Lucas County students in school during an average day,” wrote Kevin A. Pituch, assistant county prosecuting attorney.

This article originally appeared at the Ohio Capital Journal.

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