(The Center Square) — An executive order from Gov. Kate Brown is drawing fire from a private Christian school in rural Oregon which claims its religious freedom is being violated.
Eastern Oregon’s Hermiston Christian School in Umatilla County has claimed in a civil rights lawsuit filed last week in federal court that exemptions included in Gov. Kate Brown’s school reopening policies unlawfully discriminates against religious institutions.
Earlier this summer, Brown laid out a series of health metrics for when the state’s schools could reopen.
The metrics require that either the state must see a 5% COVID-19 positivity rate for three weeks or counties must see case rates fall below 10 per 100,000 residents per week—and a positivity rate of 5%— for three weeks straight.
Most Oregon school districts, from Portland to Salem, began the school year remotely and divided many parents and teachers as a result.
During the week of October 18, Hermiston’s home county of Umatilla reported a 25% positivity rate and a 13% positivity rate the week before.
Public schools with 75 or fewer students are exempted from those metrics under guidelines from the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority and may reopen for onsite classes regardless of their county’s case rates.
The exemption does not list private schools, attorneys from representing Hermiston Christian School argue.
In Umatilla County, all private schools are religious schools, according to the lawsuit, which states that Hermiston Christian School currently has 51 enrolled elementary students.
“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,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker, director of the ADF Center for Christian Ministries. “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.”
Hermiston Christian School is being represented by the Arizona nonprofit the Alliance for Defending Freedom, whose attorneys claim the state is violating the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Department of Education Director Colt Gill and Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen are named as defendants in the lawsuit with Brown. The heads of the Umatilla County Public Health Department, the Oregon State Police, and the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office are also named as defendants.
The lawsuit argues that Umatilla County’s Ukiah Public School District, by contrast, is allowed to reopen for in-person instruction.
The lawsuit calls on the courts to allow religious private schools to begin in-person learning and protect its officials from any future fines or jail time issued by the state.
No hearings are scheduled for the case.