A Christian School Sued Over Michigan’s Mask Mandate. Officials Just Shut It Down.

·7-min read
Court Documents
Court Documents

The Libertas Christian School, a “Bible-based” institution that local officials say is grappling with an “ongoing” coronavirus “outbreak,” has had enough of Michigan’s COVID-19 guidelines.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court last week against top state officials—including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan attorney general, and the director of the Department of Health and Human services—the school alleges the state government has made “repeated, unreasonable demands” since it re-opened last month, including requiring all 265 students to wear masks.

“It is inappropriate, unwise, and unconstitutional to try to fit the State’s current designs of how an industrialized state-run 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 a pattern of threats and intimidation.”

Over the last several weeks, Ottawa County officials have been at war with the educational institution—which says it serves a “close-knit community grown primarily from grassroots homeschool families”—for refusing to adhere to coronavirus guidelines. On Thursday, health officials took their battle one step further: shutting down the Hendersonville school entirely.

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The Ottawa County Department of Public Health told The Daily Beast it shut down the school after several unsuccessful cease-and-desist orders and multiple attempts to help manage the school’s coronavirus “outbreak.” But the school “refuses to mask or engage in social distancing” or provide information about possible COVID-19 exposures, a health department spokesperson said.

While health officials declined to detail how many cases have been linked to the Christian school, they allege it has an “ongoing outbreak.” Meanwhile, Libertas’ headmaster insists there are no active cases—and the school’s civil liberties are being violated.

Even so, Libertas Christian is now closed until an emergency hearing in Grand Rapids on Wednesday.

“Late last night, under the cover of darkness, the County issued a fourth unlawful order against Libertas and posted placards on entrances, attached as to church property,” the school alleged in court documents filed Friday. “More than threats, this time the County has closed the school indefinitely.”

The school’s litigation is just one of several legal battles being waged in Michigan, where public health and elected officials have desperately tried to contain the virus that may only get worse this winter. So far, the pandemic has killed almost 220,000 Americans.

Even President Donald Trump has weighed in on Michigan’s COVID-19 plan, comparing the state’s restrictions to a “prison” during Thursday night’s presidential debate. The restrictions also inspired a thwarted conspiracy to overthrow the government, kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and put her on trial for “treason.”

“It is my responsibility—in my capacity as a public health official—to help people in our community remain as safe as possible during a pandemic using the best information we currently have available about our common opponent the novel coronavirus,” OCDPH Deputy Health Administrator Marcia Mansaray said.

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To date, 7,129 people have died and another 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—curtailed the virus over the summer, Michigan is once again seeing a surge in cases. Last week, the state saw its highest rate of new cases since the pandemic began, and hospitalizations have spiked 80 percent.

“It is very possible that this is the beginning of a second wave,” Michigan Chief Medical Executive Joneigh Khaldun said last week. “That is why we are asking everyone to remain vigilant and do these basic things: wearing masks, avoiding the social gatherings. It’s very important.”

But the surge in cases has not stopped Libertas Christian from demanding the freedom to institute its own COVID-19 policies. In the lawsuit filed Sunday, the school insisted it has increased cleaning at its facilities, encouraged hand washing, and made masks and hand sanitizer available for students and faculty. The school said it has also implemented “prayer, fasting, almsgiving and traditional spiritual aids to combat disease.”

Earlier this month, the Michigan Supreme Court overturned several of Whitmer’s executive orders related to COVID-19, ruling she lacked the authority to declare a state of emergency in the pandemic. But the Department of Health and Human Services has also issued a sweeping 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, its students, and their parents from fully engaging in religious and biblical education, practice, and worship and force its immediate closure,” the school’s lawsuit states.

In an email to the school’s legal counsel obtained by The Daily Beast, Douglas Van Essen, the county corporation counsel, claimed two teachers had tested positive for COVID-19—but the cases were never reported. According to the cease-and-desist orders, the school continued to operate as normal despite the outbreak.

“We must all continue to put safety first, leverage science, data, and public evidence to inform the decision we make to serve each and every student in our community well,” Mansaray said in a Sept. 25 email obtained by The Daily Beast. “If complaints continue with evidence of continued neglect to follow the requirements for all schools, this could result in enforcement from legal or state officials.”

In one supplemental brief to the lawsuit, filed by the school on Oct. 20, Libertas admits it has received multiple cease-and-desist letters that prompted it to sue the county and state executive over “civil liberties violations” and request an emergency injunction.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney rejected Libertas’ request for an emergency injunction and ordered both sides to expedite filings for a hearing Oct. 28 on a request for a preliminary injunction.

“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 to COVID-19. The parties dispute whether students and other staff have been exposed and whether certain contact tracing measures are appropriate. Libertas generally opposes the various social distancing, gathering size limitations, and facial covering requirements, on religious grounds, and also on state-law grounds. And, Ottawa County has threatened to shut Libertas down if Libertas does not comply with several orders issued by the Ottawa County Board of Public Health.”

According to Bob Davis, the school’s headmaster, state officials came “under the cover of darkness” to shut the institution down on Thursday night. Ian Northon, lead counsel for the school, told The Daily Beast the final cease-and-desist order was issued after families concluded a potluck church social inside the school to celebrate “the end of the fall season for upper school girls’ sports with prayer and fellowship.”

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“They showed up on our cameras at 9 p.m. when everyone was gone, very cowardly, actually. Now we have people with personal property in our building unable to retrieve it. But, par for the course for petty tyrants and bullies,” Davis told The Daily Beast on Friday, adding he believes officials were “hiding in the weeds waiting for us to leave.”

While insisting that the school has no current cases of COVID-19, Davis admitted that since it opened on Sept. 8 “two faculty” members tested positive but “stayed home as required and have received their return to work permission documents from our county health department.” The supplemental brief filed Friday reiterates the headmaster’s claim, adding that the decision to close down Libertas has “scattered more than 250 healthy children and their parents who are now left without access to their chosen religious services.”

Threatening legal action against local officials who “keep moving the goal post,” the Friday brief asks the court to grant the school an injunction against the county’s “pattern of rash efforts to bring conscientious objections and those seeking to enforce their civil liberties to heel, which does not stop or slow the spread of COVID-19 and fails to promote a free and virtuous society.”

Davis also told The Daily Beast he has not heard from health officials since the Thursday night shutdown.

“Our county alleges that there is an ‘outbreak’ at our school, yet this is malicious, misleading, and false,” Davis said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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