TOLEDO, Ohio — The Ohio Christian Education Network and three faith-based schools have filed a lawsuit against the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department for halting in-person schooling for grades 7-12 until Jan. 11 due to the COVID pandemic.
“The act of worship (or engaging in physical or mental acts to honor God) takes many forms beyond singing songs in the assembled company of other believers. For many, religious education and religious worship go hand-in-glove,” the lawsuit states. “[R]eligious education is so central to religious exercise that to burden the former is to burden the latter.”
On Nov. 25, the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department (TLCHD) passed Resolution No. 2020.11.189, which prohibits in-person instruction for grades 7-12, both public and private. While it grants exceptions for special religious classes and ceremonies, all day in-person schooling is not permitted.
“Regardless of how well-intentioned TLCHD may be, the resolution is misguided and violates the federal Constitution by burdening religious institutions yet failing to prohibit other gatherings that pose more sinister health risks to community spread,” the complaint argues.
It notes that other facilities are allowed to stay open for public use, while schools must close their doors.
“If Toledo residents want to crowd the stage while an AC/DC tribute band howls Back in Black, play a few hands of blackjack, or slice into a steak inside Final Cut Steak & Seafood, Hollywood Casino Toledo remains open for business seven days a week,” the legal challenge states.
“While the biology lab and gymnasium at St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy were forcibly closed by TLCHD, Toledo residents can still gather around the squat rack at the Fitness19 location off Sylvania Avenue or hop in a tanning bed at the Tanlines location off Monroe Street,” it explains.
Therefore, the resolution “is not the least restrictive, constitutionally inoffensive way of controlling community spread,” the network and schools argue.
The lawsuit further notates that the County admits in the resolution that “little in-school transmission has been documented” but that the restriction has been implemented in light of the potential for spread of the virus.
It also outlines that the plaintiffs have placed preventative measures in place to protect the health of students’ staff — some making costly changes to do so.
“The terms of the resolution are clear: all in-person schooling at parochial schools for Grades 7-12 (or 9-12 depending on school configuration) must end regardless of whether the parochial school is taking safety precautions, practicing social distancing, or implementing appropriate hygiene standards,” the suit states. “At the same time, other secular activities and in-person schooling at parochial schools through K-6 (or K-8 depending on school configuration) are not prohibited.”
The legal challenge seeks a declaration that the resolution violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and requests an injunction against the closures.
“These schools are not just about forming children in their academic performance but also forming them in the image of God — teaching them religious instruction. It’s interwoven in everything they do, all of their instruction,” Aaron Baer, president of the Ohio Christian Education Network, said in a video statement. “We don’t live compartmentalized lives. Our lives are wholly lifted up to God, from reading, writing and arithmetic to our worship.”