In a case in which religious schools are suing a local health department to allow them to reopen, the Ohio Attorney General has written in support of the schools.
The suit was filed by Monclova Christian Academy, St. John’s Jesuit High School & Academy, Emmanuel Christian School and the religious lobby group Citizens for Community Values.
They argue that a resolution passed by the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department on Nov. 25 closing school for grades 7-12 disproportionately affects them, in violation of the rights they are allowed in the U.S. Constitution’s clause protecting freedom of religion.
Attorney General Dave Yost filed a brief in the case on Monday, agreeing that the order violates the free exercise clause.
“The order, which is designed to combat the spread of COVID-19, requires all schools, including religious schools, to cease providing most in-person classes,” Yost wrote. “Yet it allows many categories of secular entities, such as casinos and gyms, to continue providing in-person services to their customers.”
The health department argued in the initial suit that their order closing schools is allowed as part of Ohio law. It cited a section of the law that states “during an epidemic or threatened epidemic, or when a dangerous communicable disease is unusually prevalent, the board may close any school and prohibit public gatherings for such time as is necessary.”
“Here, the health department has been granted the authority to close schools in times of epidemic, but it does not have the statutory authority to close or regulate other businesses or entities within Lucas County,” according to Lucas County Prosecuting Attorney Julia Bates, on behalf of the county health department.
The attorney general said he was speaking on behalf of the state because the state “has a compelling interest in stopping governmental entities from violating Ohioans’ right to the free exercise of religion,” and because of doubts about the “effectiveness” of remote learning.
Yost said the closure of schools “will substantially burden religious practice because in-person education is essential to religious beliefs.”
“The secular-minded may view religion as a quaint add-on to a life otherwise similar to that of everyone else,” Yost wrote. “In fact, however, religion bears on every aspect of a believer’s life.”
A U.S. District Court ruled against the religious organizations, leading to the appeal to the Sixth District court.
State data shows Lucas County as a high-incidence county, along with most counties in the state. In most recent data reported, Lucas County had 701 cases per 100,000 residents, and 3,004 cases reported over the past two weeks.
The county is the sixth highest in the total cases, with 25,282 reported as of Tuesday.