In September, the Oregon Department of Education approved Hermiston Christian School as an Emergency Child Care facility.
It praised the private, faith-based school for being “very clean and organized” and “very well prepared” for the coronavirus.
A month later, Governor Kate Brown shut them down. Now she’s facing a lawsuit for religious discrimination.
The small Christian school has filed a lawsuit against Brown, the Department of Education and other state and local officials for closing the private school while allowing public schools of similar size to remain open during COVID-19.
The lawsuit, filed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, alleges that Governor Brown and state officials assured the Umatilla County school that it could provide in-person instruction to its 51 K-12 students as long as they met state health and safety guidelines.
Then in July, Brown ordered private schools throughout the state to close down, meanwhile public schools with 75 or fewer students remained open. The order threatened private schools with a $1,250 fine and jail time for school officials.
The ADF lawsuit says the state cannot distinguish between public and private schools.
“While responding to crises can be difficult, this case is not,” ADF senior counsel Ryan Tucker said.
“There is no legitimate reason for allowing public schools with 75 or fewer students to provide in-person instruction while denying the same opportunity to small private schools, including religious ones.”
The lawsuit states that Hermiston Christian School operates in the same county as public schools that are open, and has the same number of students in a larger facility that complies with the state’s health and safety protocols.
“Gov. Brown’s refusal to extend the same treatment to Hermiston Christian School as she does to small public schools violates the U.S. Constitution and discriminates against parents who choose to provide a religious education for their children,” Tucker said.
According to ADF, the school maintained its staff and spent money to ensure it met or exceeded the state’s health and safety requirements.
The school posted numerous photos on its Facebook page highlighting the health and safety measures implemented to meet state requirements.
The Oregon Department of Education conducted a virtual inspection of the school in September and approved it as an Emergency Child Care Facility, noting it was “very clean and organized. [Staff] were very well prepared and are following the Health and Safety Guidelines.”
But the county public health department later advised the school that it could not provide in-person schooling — even to students in its childcare program.
In the lawsuit, ADF notes that Hermiston Christian School also serves some low-income families where the parents have to work outside the home.
“Most distance-learning models rely on increased levels of parental involvement, which imposes unique burdens upon single parents or low-income families with two working parents,” the lawsuit states.
ADF, which defends a host of Christian schools, churches, and other religious institutions against discrimination and violations of religious liberty, argues that Brown was trying to protect public schools.
The suit alleges that Brown’s staff had raised concerns about a potential “mass exodus” of students from public schools into private schools, resulting in a reduction of public education funds.
“Gov. Brown’s personal preference for public over private education does not permit her to discriminate against faith-based schools,” ADF senior counsel David Cortman said.
“Oregon’s Department of Education has personally evaluated Hermiston Christian School and found that it is a safe place for school-aged children to spend full days, but the very same department threatens imprisonment and fines if the school dares to educate those very same children while they’re in the building.”
“Public health crises do not suspend the Constitution or permit elected leaders to favor secular public schools by granting them unique exceptions.”