Ohio Attorney General Backs Lawsuit to Keep Religious Schools Open Amid Pandemic

Ohio Attorney General Backs Lawsuit to Keep Religious Schools Open Amid Pandemic
Dave Yost spoke at the Ohio Republican Party's election night party in Columbus, Ohio on Nov. 6, 2018. (Justin Merriman/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost on Monday filed an amicus brief in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in support of religious schools seeking to overturn a county health department’s shutdown order, calling the order a violation of the First Amendment.

“This order violates the Free Exercise Clause,” Yost wrote in the brief. “That clause prohibits the government from discriminating against religion.”

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month by three Christian schools, is challenging the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department’s order that halts grades 7–12 for in-person instruction and sports from Dec. 4 to Jan. 11. The order applies to all public, private, charter, and parochial institutions in the county.

While recognizing that the order is meant to curb the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, the schools argued in the lawsuit that it has violated their religious freedom by forcing them to suspend their inherently religious instruction. They also took issue with the fact that secular businesses such as casinos, restaurants, and gyms are allowed to remain open and provide in-person services.

“That prohibition on discrimination means that once a State creates a favored class of businesses, it must justify why [religious instituions] are excluded from that favored class,” Yost wrote in his brief, noting that the county health department “has not justified treating religious schools worse than casinos, gyms, or numerous other businesses.”

“[The order] burdens religious practice,” Yost added. “Those burdens are unequal to the burdens imposed on secular entities, and the disparate treatment cannot survive strict scrutiny.” He asked the 6th Circuit to issue an injunction that would let the suing schools to open for in-person instruction while the case moves through.

The Ohio lawsuit is one of the legal efforts to challenge public health restrictions against religious entities during the CCP virus pandemic. In November, a Kentucky K–12 Christian school sued Gov. Andy Beshear for his in-person class restrictions. Citing a surge in CCP virus infections, the Democrat governor signed an executive order on Nov. 18 requiring all public, private, and religious-based schools to cease in-person classes from Nov. 23 until at least Jan. 4, 2021.

In another November lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of New York City’s Orthodox Jewish community, blocking New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from enforcing an occupancy limit on places of worship in his state.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the majority opinion read. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”