Appeals Court Grants Injunction to Ohio Faith-Based Schools That Sued Over COVID Closures

Photo Credit: Cole Stivers/Pixabay

CINCINNATI, Ohio — The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has granted an injunction to nine faith-based schools who sued the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department (TLCHD) in Ohio for temporarily banning in-person instruction while permitting some secular facilities to remain open.

“In Lucas County, the plaintiffs’ schools are closed, while gyms, tanning salons, office buildings, and the Hollywood Casino remain open,” the unanimous three-judge panel noted on Thursday. “The resolution’s restrictions therefore impose greater burdens on the plaintiffs’ conduct than on secular conduct.”

“The Department’s closure of plaintiffs’ schools is thus subject to strict scrutiny. The Department does not argue that its action can survive that scrutiny. Nor do we see any reason why it would,” it said. “The closure of the plaintiffs’ schools therefore violates their rights under the Free Exercise Clause, which means they should succeed on the merits of their appeal.”

As previously reported, on Nov. 25, TLCHD passed Resolution No. 2020.11.189, which prohibited in-person instruction for grades 7-12, both public and private, until Jan. 11. While it granted exceptions for special religious classes and ceremonies, all day in-person schooling was not permitted.

The Ohio Christian Education Network (representing six schools) and three separate faith-based schools filed suit to challenge the restriction, arguing 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 stated.

“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 explained.

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On Dec. 16, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Helmick, nominated to the bench by then-President Barack Obama, sided with the health department, opining that the resolution “does not ‘single out’ parochial schools for harsher treatment than secular schools receive.”

The schools appealed, and on Dec. 31, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Helmick’s decision, finding that the schools were nonetheless subject to stricter regulation than “comparable secular actors” — such as gyms and tanning salons, thus violating their free exercise of religion. It sent the matter back to his attention for further deliberation.

“The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department is enjoined, during the pendency of this appeal, from enforcing Resolution No. 2020.11.189 or otherwise prohibiting in-person attendance at the plaintiffs’ schools,” the panel wrote.

Read the ruling in full here.

The group Citizens for Community Values, which operates as the Ohio Christian Education Network, applauded the decision.

“The First Amendment does not take a holiday break. It was clear from the outset that the Lucas County Health Board’s order closing schools violated the Constitution,” President Aaron Baer said in a statement. “It is indefensible and irrational to block children from accessing in-person instruction, while allowing casinos, gyms, liquor stores, and other public places to remain open.”

“Lucas County families have suffered plenty through this pandemic, and to unreasonably deny their children in-person education is unconscionable,” he opined. “[The] order is a victory for families, for religious freedom, and for all those willing to courageously stand up against unnecessary and overreaching government orders.”

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