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Federal judge rules against Christian school shut down by health dept over masks, contact tracing

US District Court Western District of Michigan

Libertas Christian School, a small non-denominational private school in West Michigan, currently remains closed after a federal judge denied its request for an injunction against the Ottawa County Health Department on Tuesday. 

The county issued a final cease and desist order against the school on October 22, effectively shutting it down, saying Libertas posed an “imminent danger” to the community.

County health officials argue the school failed to report multiple cases of COVID-19 among students and teachers, violated the state’s Emergency Order regarding masking and social distancing, and refused to provide contact tracing information for its students.    

But Libertas’ leadership and attorneys argue the school was maliciously targeted by a county seeking to “make an example” of them, and that enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing would violate parents’ rights to free religious expression.

Libertas filed a request for injunctive relief against the county, asking the federal court to allow them to reopen while the case proceeded. 

That request was denied on Tuesday, and U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney kicked the school’s legal challenge to the Emergency Orders issued by Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon to the state courts.

Those orders are based on Michigan’s public health statute, Maloney wrote, which is challenged so rarely that it “has not yet been interpreted by any state court.”

During three days of contentious hearings, the county indicated it “would make concessions on Libertas’ objections to face coverings during chapel,” Maloney said in his ruling. “So long as Libertas was willing to follow the other mandates, Libertas was free to open the school doors and resume activities on Friday, November 6..."

“...The Court will also abstain fr[om] resolving Libertas’ constitutional claims as those claims arise from an unsettled state law or act. There is sufficient time for the state law issues to be raised in State courts. And, the manner in which the State courts might resolve the dispute would eliminate the need for the Court to reach any constitutional determination.”

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Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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