A private Christian school in Oregon is suing the state for discrimination after allowing public schools to open but keeping private schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a glance:
Hermiston Christian School had been advised for months by Democrat Gov. Kate Brown and state education officials that it would be able to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall. Gov. Brown changed her mind, however, and on July 29, 2020,, issued an order requiring private schools to remain closed but allowing public schools with less than 75 students to open. If Hermiston, which has 51 students, did choose to open, its officials would be arrested and punished with jail time and fines.
The state’s rationale for keeping private schools closed was revealed by one of Gov. Brown’s policy advisors. Brown’s administration fears “a mass exodus” from public schools if private schools are allowed to open. An exodus to private schools would mean less funding for public schools.
Hermiston has responded by filing a lawsuit against Gov. Brown and other state officials. Ryan Tucker, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing the school, explained:
“Hermiston Christian School operates in the same county as a public school that is open, and it operates with the same number of students, who are performing the same type of activity, working in an even larger physical environment, and complying with the same health and safety protocols. Gov. Brown’s refusal to extend the same treatment to Hermiston Christian School as she does to small public schools violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against parents who choose to provide a religious education for their children.”
Hermiston spent money to ensure that the school was compliant with safety orders and retained staff in the expectation that they would be able to open. ADF wrote that the Oregon Department of Education inspected the school and reported that the “facility is very clean and organized. [Staff] were very well prepared and are following the Health and Safety Guidelines.”
ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman noted,
“Gov. Brown’s personal preference for public over private education does not permit her to discriminate against faith-based schools…Oregon’s Department of Education has personally evaluated Hermiston Christian School and found that it is a safe place for school-aged children to spend full days, but the very same department threatens imprisonment and fines if the school dares to educate those very same children while they’re in the building. Public health crises do not suspend the Constitution or permit elected leaders to favor secular public schools by granting them unique exceptions.”
In a press release ADF pointed out that:
“Allowing public schools in the Ukiah School District to reopen but not its private counterparts is a case of the government attempting to squash private, Christian education. This is unconstitutional. Religious institutions cannot be treated worse, nor can parents be precluded from directing the upbringing and education of their children. To put a rotten cherry on top of the unconstitutional behavior of the State, Oregon has approved sending millions to public schools that are having to adjust to the new health demands of the State. Meanwhile, no such money has been provided to the Christian schools who have been singled out for closure.”
In its legal filing, ADF referenced the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, which affirmed that religious schools cannot be discriminated against because they are religious.
State governments have used COVID-19 as an excuse to discriminate against religious institutions. The Hermiston case is yet another example of the government’s blatant efforts to curtail religious liberty. A virus does not put the Constitution on hold. Arbitrarily allowing some schools to open and leaving others closed promotes neither safety nor liberty.