Judge denies request for temporary stop to West Michigan school closure


A authorized battle between a west Michigan Christian college and the Ottawa County Well being Division is setting the stage for essentially the most forceful problem up to now of the state’s new epidemic orders.

Libertas Christian Faculty filed a lawsuit final Sunday towards the state and native well being division, difficult the state’s masks mandate. It triggered an aggressive response from the well being division because it issued extra cease-and-desist orders and culminated with a Thursday order closing the premises.

The varsity argues that its actions — from chapel within the morning to lessons that every start with prayer — are exempt below the state’s carve-out for spiritual worship in each Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s government orders and the more moderen state Division of Well being and Human Providers epidemic orders.

Even absent that exemption, the enforcement of the state’s orders on the spiritual college would violate its constitutional rights to freedom of affiliation, freedom of faith and household integrity and training, the college argued.

Although the case may set a precedent all through the state, the college’s management has little curiosity in that.

“We simply wish to be left alone,” mentioned Bob Davis, headmaster for the college. “We simply wish to be left alone to pursue a classical Christian training as desired by our mother and father.”

The county is experiencing a spike in circumstances and wanted cooperation from faculties like Libertas to contact hint and management the outbreak, mentioned Doug Van Essen, a lawyer for the Ottawa County Well being Division.

“Along with our diligent illness investigation course of, we had quite a few fearful people attain out to us involved about well being and security in an setting that was not working to guard them,” mentioned Lisa Stefanovsky, administrative well being officer for the division. “We hear these voices and take severely our obligation to guard our group.”

The battle between the college and well being division reached a peak Friday as the college’s lead counsel, Ian Northon, requested a federal courtroom to name an instantaneous halt to the college’s closure by the Ottawa County Well being Division and maintain the well being division in contempt of courtroom. 

Western U.S. District Decide Paul Maloney denied the requests, arguing the well being division didn’t violate any courtroom orders and that the momentary reversal the college was requesting didn’t affect spiritual liberties.

 “The closure was as a consequence of Libertas’ unwillingness to adjust to orders that didn’t implicate spiritual beliefs or train, at the least on the report earlier than this courtroom,” wrote Maloney, an appointee of Republican former President George W. Bush.

Libertas had sued the state in federal courtroom over the enforcement of a statewide masks mandate and a subsequent cease-and-desist order from the Ottawa County Well being Division difficult the college’s refusal.

After the swimsuit was filed, the well being division issued two different cease-and-desist letters that argued the college had additionally prevented reporting necessities after two lecturers examined constructive and did not quarantine the lecturers’ second-grade college students. The varsity has denied negligence in reporting the circumstances or taking acceptable precautions with the lecturers.

On Thursday, below “cowl of darkness,” well being officers posted notices to the college’s doorways with a fourth quarantine order that closed the constructing as a consequence of COVID-19, based on the college’s lawsuit.

Maloney had set an emergency listening to for Wednesday, when he plans to think about the college’s movement for a preliminary injunction.

The county used the delay between the lawsuit’s submitting and the time of the emergency listening to “to close down the constitutionally protected free affiliation of oldsters and their kids with none investigation or alternative to be heard,” Northon mentioned.

“The county has shut down the spiritual actions of greater than 250 wholesome folks with out foundation in actual fact or legislation,” he mentioned.

‘We’re not anti-mask’

Libertas Christian Faculty grew from a house college group in a church basement to greater than 250 college students in a separate constructing in Hudsonville, Davis mentioned. 

Some residence college households nonetheless attend part-time via a partnership program on the college, which facilities round faith-based studying, with reward and worship at the start of every day, every class and sporting occasions. 

Partially as a result of its roots are within the residence college group, the college views itself as aiding mother and father within the training and religion formation of youngsters. Every household can resolve whether or not their little one will put on a masks, Davis mentioned, and a few workers members additionally put on them.  

“We’re not anti-mask,” Davis mentioned. “We simply honor what mother and father need. It goes again to parental rights.”

The Ottawa County Well being Division first despatched a warning letter to the college on Sept. 25 about failing to adjust to the masks mandate and gathering limitations, particularly when the scholars have been in morning chapel. A cease-and-desist order dated Oct. 6 adopted, a day after the state well being division issued its masks mandate.

The varsity mentioned it didn’t obtain the primary order till Oct. 15, at which level it corresponded with the well being division concerning the order. The varsity filed swimsuit Sunday in federal courtroom.

After the swimsuit was filed, the well being division realized of two lecturers who had examined constructive for COVID-19 and who they mentioned had not cooperated with contact tracers. The invention prompted two extra cease-and-desist orders final Monday.

The second and third cease-and-desist orders directed the college to quarantine its second-grade college students, whom the lecturers had taught.

Previous to the order, the lecturers consulted with their docs and concluded they had not uncovered any college students to the virus earlier than testing constructive, Northon mentioned. They remained residence for the suitable interval after their diagnoses and the well being division was given the docs’ notes for each lecturers, he mentioned.

No college students have examined constructive for the virus, Northon mentioned.

Regardless of the precautions taken, at the least one trainer was pressured to launch the names of her college students to the well being division and was instructed she could be apprehended if she left her residence, he mentioned. 

“They’re making an attempt to now declare {that a} two-week-old potential publicity is now an imminent menace,” Northon mentioned.

The well being division didn’t threaten the trainer, mentioned Van Essen, the well being division’s lawyer. 

“I can guarantee you that whereas somebody could have suggested her that she needed to quarantine, nobody threatened to arrest her if she left her home,” Van Essen mentioned. “We’re not imposing towards the trainer. We’re imposing towards the college, which has a authorized obligation to report the shut contact data.”

As of Thursday, Ottawa County had 4,458 confirmed circumstances of the virus and 67 confirmed deaths, with a case incidence of 16,899 circumstances per million folks. The speed is larger than Muskegon County to the north or Allegan County to south, however decrease than Kent County to the east.

At about 9 p.m. Thursday, the Ottawa County Well being Division posted closure indicators on the doorways of the college serving as “a remaining cease-and-desist order” for the ability, the place the authorities contend there may be “an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19” due to the 2 lecturers who examined constructive.

The closure — which Davis and Northon referred to as “retaliatory” and “cowardly” — will price the college $1,000 a day in misplaced tuition, mentioned Northon, whose authorized charges are being paid for by the Thomas Extra Society in Chicago.

“It is a college that on Thursday per week in the past bought instructed it was going to close down as a result of it was ‘singing within the chapel,’” Northon mentioned. “They’re making an attempt to adjust to the legal guidelines to one of the best of their capacity, however they won’t compromise their place with the Lord.”

Faculty argues spiritual exemption

The state has lengthy had an exemption for spiritual providers in Whitmer’s government orders and the state well being division’s epidemic orders. The exemption shields folks attending spiritual worship and the church buildings themselves from penalties for violations of the orders. 

However Ottawa County’s well being division contends the exemption comes right down to “a matter of how one enforces it.”

“A declaration by the courtroom stating that they must observe them in chapel is all we’re asking for on that topic,” Van Essen mentioned. “It is a deflecting situation by the college. ​​​​​​”

Apart from, he mentioned, college students are also failing to put on masks in school and the college is not following reporting necessities, a declare the college denies. 

Each class is “infused with the biblical world view” and begins with a brief worship service, Davis mentioned. “You may’t lower out a chunk of our day and say that’s spiritual, however over right here, arithmetic, that’s secular.” 

In its lawsuit, the college mentioned it had elevated cleansing at its services, inspired hand washing, made masks and hand sanitizer obtainable, and carried out procedures requiring sick or uncovered children to remain residence. 

As well as, the college has carried out “prayer, fasting, almsgiving and conventional non secular aids to fight illness.”

Libertas mentioned the well being division’s primary areas of concern included the college’s “morning worship meeting” or “morning chapel.”

The varsity argued the cease-and-desist orders, underpinned by the state’s epidemic orders, violated the college and its college students’ rights to freedom of affiliation, due course of, spiritual liberty and the civil proper to household integrity and training. It additionally violates Michigan’s separation of powers doctrine, the lawsuit mentioned. 

Its swimsuit got here per week after misdemeanor prices have been dropped towards an Owosso barber who defied Whitmer’s stay-home order and reopened final spring. 

The state had threatened to close Barber Karl Manke’s store down however by no means did so.

However the governor’s government orders at situation in Manke’s case are separate from the state well being division’s epidemic orders and quarantine guidelines getting used within the Libertas case. 

Whitmer’s government orders at situation in Manke’s case have been overturned Oct. 2 by the Michigan Supreme Courtroom when the justices dominated unanimously that she had no authority below a 1976 legislation to increase an emergency with out the Legislature’s approval and dominated 4-Three that the 1945 legislation additionally supporting her orders was unconstitutional.


Learn or Share this story: https://www.detroitnews.com/story/information/native/michigan/2020/10/23/county-officials-shutter-west-michigan-school-suing-state-over-mask-mandate/3740191001/

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