Legal battle brews as Ottawa County shuts down Christian school over COVID orders
The Ottawa County health department has temporarily shut down a Christian school in West Michigan, and the related legal battle is one of the first to challenge the state health department's recent orders.
Ottawa County issued a final "cease and desist" letter to Libertas Christian School in Hudsonville this week, alleging the school didn't report two teachers' COVID-19 infections and has refused to provide students' information to contact tracers. A judge denied Libertas Christian's request for a temporary restraining order against the county.
Then, on Thursday night, county health officials posted public notices at the school, effectively closing it as a public health risk. Doug Van Essen is Ottawa County's corporation counsel.
"We have had deputies patrolling [the area around the school since last night] and it doesn't appear as if there's any in-person learning there. So at least they're honoring the order," he says.
"I filed a motion for my own injunction on Wednesday, that basically asks them to follow the order to mask up, and to cooperate with contact tracing that comes up, or not to operate in person. Those are their options. They can either follow the law like everyone else is doing in the school setting, or they can choose to do it virtual. We don't care. But they have to follow the rules that every other school in the state is following," Van Essen said.
Attorney Ian Northon represents Libertas Christian on behalf of the Amistad Project, a part of the Thomas More Law Society. Libertas, which doesn't enforce mask wearing, denies the first teacher could have possibly exposed any of her second-graders because she was out of school for several days before testing positive, Northon says. He adds the school has already done any neccesary contact tracing and communicated with families appropriately. Now, he says, the county is violating the school's religious freedom.
"Let them go to school, let the parents associate as they please," Northon says. "Let them have their religious services as they please. Until the constitutional and statutory issues are resolved."
In an order issued Thursday, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney instructed both parties to appear in court Wednesday for a hearing.
"The Court is well aware of the fluid and evolving nature of this situation," Maloney says in the order. "Teachers at the school have tested positive to COVID-19. The parties dispute whether students and other staff have been exposed and whether certain contact tracing measures are appropriate. Libertas generally opposes the various social distancing, gathering size limitations and facial covering requirements, on religious grounds and also on state-law grounds."
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