Back to school in Ohio
Religious Liberty | Appeals court order allows Christian schools to reopen
by Steve West
Posted 1/05/21, 02:28 pm
A New Year’s Eve ruling vindicated nine Ohio Christian schools, blocking implementation of a county order that closed all schools for grades 7-11.
In an unsigned opinion, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s order violated the schools’ right to free exercise of religion. Taking up the issue that the Supreme Court dodged before Christmas, the court declined to compare the treatment of religious schools with secular schools, which were also closed.
The panel cited the Supreme Court’s Thanksgiving Eve decision striking down New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions on places of worship, saying it was not relevant that the government treated the religious schools the same as secular schools, specifically. “In Lucas County, the plaintiffs’ schools are closed, while gyms, tanning salons, office buildings, and the Hollywood Casino remain open,” the court wrote. “The resolution’s restrictions therefore impose greater burdens on the plaintiffs’ conduct than on secular conduct.”
The county argued religious classes or ceremonies were still possible, but the court refused to compartmentalize religious practice. It pointed to the schools’ argument that faith pervaded each day of in-person schooling.
The decision could have implications for schools in other states in the circuit, including Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee if they impose new restrictions. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear lifted his order closing religious schools on Dec. 18. A district court on Dec. 21 denied a challenge to Michigan’s order closing religious high schools because the closures expired on Dec. 20.
The Ohio Christian Education Network, led by Aaron Baer, joined the schools’ lawsuit. “Today’s order is a victory for families, for religious freedom, and for all those willing to courageously stand up against unnecessary and overreaching government orders,” Baer said.
While the ruling does not resolve the case, it seems unlikely that the panel would ultimately uphold the school closure order on appeal. In the meantime, school is in for Toledo-area students.
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.