A Hudsonville Christian school that is suing the state of Michigan in federal court over enforcement of its mask mandate was shut down Thursday night by Ottawa County officials, according to the school’s lawyer.
The closure came as families at Libertas Christian School in West Michigan were concluding an event inside and after the federal judge in the case had asked for “patience and prudence,” said Ian Northon, lead counsel for the school.
Grand Rapids U.S. District Judge Paul Maloney had set an emergency hearing for Wednesday.
“Instead, the county used the delay to shut down the constitutionally protected free association of parents and their children without any investigation or opportunity to be heard,” Northon said, noting the county issued three cease-and-desist orders since the filing of the suit Sunday without doing a single site visit.
“The county has shut down the religious activities of more than 250 healthy people without basis in fact or law,” he said.
The school, Northon said, is similar to a home school co-operative and centers around faith-based learning, with praise and worship at the beginning of each day, each class and sporting events.
“Libertas sees itself as assisting parents” in the education and faith formation of their children, Northon said. “And the parents aren’t going to be told how to conduct their faith and worship services.”
The Ottawa County Health Department said in a Friday statement the signs posted on the doors of the school served as “a final cease-and-desist order” for the school, where the authorities contend there is “an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.”
“In addition to our diligent disease investigation process, we had numerous fearful individuals reach out to us concerned about health and safety in an environment that was not working to protect them,” said Lisa Stefanovsky, administrative health officer for the department. “We hear those voices and take seriously our duty to protect our community.”
Northon said no students have tested positive for the virus, but a teacher did earlier this month.
The teacher consulted with her doctor and concluded she had not exposed any students to the virus before testing positive. She remained home for the appropriate period after her diagnosis, Northon said.
Despite the precautions, the teacher was pressured to release the names of her students to the health department and was told she would be apprehended if she left her home, he said.
“They’re trying to now claim that a two-week-old potential exposure is now an imminent threat,” the lawyer said.
The lawsuit comes a week after misdemeanor charges were dropped against an Owosso barber who defied Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order and reopened last spring.
The state had threatened to shut Barber Karl Manke’s shop down, but never did so.
But the governor’s executive orders at issue in Manke’s case are separate from the state health department’s epidemic orders being used against Libertas.
Whitmer’s executive orders at issue in Manke’s case were overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court Oct. 2, when the justices ruled unanimously that she had no authority under a 1976 law to extend an emergency without the Legislature’s approval and ruled 4-3 that the 1945 law also supporting her orders was unconstitutional.
Libertas Christian School had filed suit against the state Sunday after it had received a cease and desist letter from the county health department over its alleged failure to comply with gathering limitations and face mask requirements. The Ottawa County order was dated a day after the state Department of Health and Human Services issued its mask mandate.
In its lawsuit, the school said it had increased cleaning at its facilities, encouraged hand washing, made masks and hand sanitizer available, and implemented procedures requiring sick or exposed kids to stay home.
In addition, the school has implemented “prayer, fasting, alms giving and traditional spiritual aids to combat disease.”
No students at the school have become ill or tested positive for the virus since it began operating under its own protocols on Sept. 8, the lawsuit said.
The school said the health department’s main areas of concern included the school’s “morning worship assembly” or “morning chapel.”
The school argued the cease and desist order, underpinned by the state’s epidemic orders, violated the school and its students’ right to freedom of association, due process, Michigan’s separation of powers doctrine, religious liberty and the civil right to family integrity and education.
The case was assigned to Maloney, whose request to the Michigan Supreme Court in a separate case led to the overturning of Whitmer’s executive orders.