The Libertas Christian School, a “Bible-based” institution that local officials say is grappling with an “ongoing” coronavirus “epidemic”, has had enough of Michigan’s COVID-19 guidelines.
In a lawsuit in federal court last week against senior state officials – including Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General and the director of the Department of Health and Human Services – the school alleges that the state government has made “repeated and unreasonable demands” since it reopened last month, including demanding that all 265 students wear masks.
“It is inappropriate, reckless and unconstitutional to try to adapt current conceptions of the state of how an industrialized industrial school should operate to this Bible-based association,” the lawsuit alleges. The school accuses Michigan officials of “violating the constitutional rights of Libertas, its students, their families and their teachers through threats and intimidation.”
In recent weeks, Ottawa County officials have been at war with the educational institution – which says it serves a “united community, drawn mostly from working-class families at home” – for refusing to ” adhere to the coronavirus guidelines. Health officials took their battle one step further on Thursday: the complete closure of the Hendersonville school.
The Ottawa County Public Health Department told The Daily Beast it had closed the school after several unsuccessful cease and desist orders and several attempts to help manage the school’s coronavirus “epidemic”. But the school “refuses to hide or engage in social distancing” or provide information about possible COVID-19 exposures, a health department spokesperson said.
Although health officials have declined to detail the number of cases linked to the Christian school, they allege there is an “ongoing epidemic.” Meanwhile, the director of Libertas insists there are no active cases – and that the school’s civil liberties are being violated.
Despite this, Libertas Christian is now closed until an emergency hearing in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.
“Late last night, under cover of darkness, the county issued a fourth illegal order against Libertas and posted signs on the entrances, attached to church property,” the school said in documents court cases filed Friday. “More than threats, this time the county closed the school indefinitely.”
The school litigation is just one of many legal battles being fought in Michigan, where public health and elected officials have desperately tried to contain the virus that could only get worse this winter. So far, the pandemic has killed nearly 220,000 Americans.
Even President Donald Trump weighed in on Michigan’s COVID-19 plan, likening the state’s restrictions to a “prison” during Thursday night’s presidential debate. The restrictions also inspired a thwarted plot to topple the government, kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and bring her to justice for “treason.”
“It is my responsibility – as a public health official – to help people in our community stay as safe as possible during a pandemic using the best information we currently have on our common adversary, the new coronavirus, ”PDOHP Deputy Health Officer Marcia Mansaray said.
To date, 7,129 people have died and an additional 152,862 have tested positive for the coronavirus in Michigan, a spokesperson for the state’s health department told the Daily Beast. After aggressive lockdown measures implemented by Whitmer – including limits on large gatherings – reduced the virus over the summer, Michigan is again seeing an increase in cases. Last week, the state recorded its highest rate of new cases since the start of the pandemic and hospitalizations soared 80%.
“It is very possible that this is the start of a second wave,” Michigan Medical Director Joneigh Khaldun said last week. “That’s why we’re asking everyone to stay alert and do these basic things: wear masks, avoid social gatherings. Its very important.”
But the surge in cases hasn’t stopped Libertas Christian from demanding the freedom to institute their own COVID-19 policies. In the lawsuit filed on Sunday, the school insisted it had increased cleaning of its facilities, encouraged hand washing, and made masks and hand sanitizer available to students and faculty. The school said it had also implemented “traditional prayer, fasting, alms and spiritual aids to combat disease.”
Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned several of Whitmer’s executive orders related to COVID-19, ruling that it lacked the power to declare a state of emergency in the pandemic. But the Department of Health and Human Services also issued a blanket order that largely mirrors Whitmer’s original mandate, including requiring masks at any public gathering of more than two people.
“Compliance … would prevent Libertas, its teachers, students and their parents from fully engaging in religious and biblical education, practice and worship and force its immediate closure,” says the school’s lawsuit.
In an email to the school’s legal advisor obtained by The Daily Beast, Douglas Van Essen, the county corporation’s attorney, claimed two teachers had tested positive for COVID-19 – but the cases did not never been reported. Under the cease and desist orders, the school continued to function normally despite the epidemic.
“We all need to continue to put safety first, leveraging science, data and public evidence to inform the decision we make to properly separate every student from our community,” Mansaray said in an email on 25 September obtained by The Daily Beast. “If complaints continue with evidence of continued negligence to meet all schools’ requirements, this could result in law enforcement by officials or the state.
In an additional trial brief, filed by the school on October 20, Libertas admits receiving several letters of prohibition and discontinuance that prompted him to sue the county and state executive for “violations of freedoms. civil rights ”and to seek an emergency injunction. .
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney dismissed Libertas’ request for an emergency injunction and ordered both parties to expedite filings for an Oct. 28 hearing on a preliminary injunction request.
“The Court is well aware of the fluid and evolving nature of this situation,” Maloney wrote in the order, according to MLive. “Teachers at the school have tested positive for COVID-19. The parties dispute whether students and other staff have been exposed and whether certain contact tracing measures are appropriate. Libertas generally opposes various social distancing, assembly size limitations, and facial coverage requirements, for religious reasons, as well as for reasons of state law. And Ottawa County has threatened to shut down Libertas if Libertas does not comply with several orders issued by the Ottawa County Public Health Board.
According to Bob Davis, the school principal, state officials came “under cover of darkness” to shut down the facility Thursday night. Ian Northon, the school’s senior lawyer, told the Daily Beast that the final cease and desist order was issued after families entered into a potluck at the church inside the school to celebrate ‘the end of the fall seasons for high school girls sports through prayer and fellowship.
“They showed up on our cameras at 9pm when everyone was gone, very cowardly, actually. Now we have people with personal belongings in our building who cannot get them back. But, on par with petty bullies and bullies, ”Davis told the Daily Beast on Friday, adding that he believed those responsible were“ hiding in the weeds while waiting for us to leave ”.
While insisting that the school has no current cases of COVID-19, Davis admitted that since opening on September 8, “two faculty members” have tested positive but “have stayed at home. as required and have received their return to work authorization documents from our county health. department. ”The additional brief filed Friday reiterates the director’s assertion, adding that the decision to shut down Libertas has“ dispersed over 250 healthy children and their parents who are now denied access to religious services of their choice. ”
Threatening lawsuits against local officials who “continue to move the goal post,” Friday’s brief asks the court to grant the school an injunction against “the county’s thoughtless efforts to bring up conscientious objections and who seek to enforce their civil liberties in step, which does not stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 and fail to promote a free and virtuous society.
Davis also told the Daily Beast he had not heard from health officials since Thursday night’s shutdown.
“Our county is alleging there is an ‘epidemic’ in our school, but it is malicious, misleading and false,” Davis said.
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