Saturday, January 02, 2021

6th Circuit: County COVID Order Closing All High Schools Infringes Parochial Schools' Rights

In Monclova Christian Academy v. Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, (6th Cir., Dec. 31, 2020), the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction pending appeal against enforcement of a health department order prohibiting in-person attendance for Grades 7-12 at the nine Christian and Catholic schools bringing suit. The health department order imposed the same restrictions on public and secular private schools in the Ohio county. The court held that in deciding whether religious schools are treated less favorably than comparable secular activities, it is not enough that secular schools are treated in the same manner:

In Lucas County, the plaintiffs’ schools are closed, while gyms, tanning salons, office buildings, and the Hollywood Casino remain open. Cuomo makes clear that those secular facilities are “comparable” for purposes of spreading COVID-19. 141 S. Ct. at 66; see also, e.g., Roberts, 958 F.3d at 414. The Resolution’s restrictions therefore impose greater burdens on the plaintiffs’ conduct than on secular conduct.

The court also rejected the state's argument that the schools' exercise of religion was not burdened because the order allowed the schools to open for religious education classes and religious ceremonies. The court said in part:

... [N]o one argues that the Department has targeted the plaintiffs’ schools or acted with animus toward religion here. But the plaintiffs argue that the exercise of their faith is not so neatly compartmentalized. To the contrary, they say, their faith pervades each day of in-person schooling.... We have no basis to second-guess these representations.... The Department’s closure of the plaintiffs’ schools therefore burdens their religious practice.

Josh Blackman at Volokh Conspiracy reports on the decision.