Judge tosses injunction request over rescinded in-school learning ban

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Part of a lawsuit against state officials over a ban on in-place religious instruction and education was dismissed Monday after officials agreed to allow such sessions during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Michigan Association of Non-public Schools filed a federal lawsuit Dec. 8 claiming a previous state order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Department of Health and Human Services banning in-school classes and religious training as part of a partial shutdown of gatherings was unconstitutional.

Rooms have been adjusted for coronavirus safety, as seen in the chapel with the chairs spaced out at De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren, Mich. on Dec. 17, 2020.   The school has invested in thermal cameras and had several coronavirus protocols while the school was open this fall.

The group, which represents 400 schools and 90,000 students across Michigan, sought a preliminary injunction against banning in-person high school religious instruction. Whitmer had issued the executive order as part of statewide efforts to slow spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Whitmer lifted the in-person school order as of this Monday along with other revisions.

Judge Paul L. Maloney, who had previously scheduled an afternoon hearing on the matter, issued an order dismissing the group's request for an injunction, saying it was "moot" as the state had lifted its ban.

MANS asked judges to rule on whether the government had the right to temporarily eliminate personal freedoms, like religious instruction, during the pandemic. It argues necessary precautions had been taken to keep children safe.

“It is a victory of a sort but not unexpected after the governor’s revision of rules last week,” Executive Director Brian Broderick said Monday. “Most of our schools are off now for the Christmas break but we will be watching to make sure the state doesn’t impose similar restrictions after the holidays.”

Broderick said schools that had experienced surges conducted their own isolation of students. All schools practiced social distancing and wearing of masks by students and faculty, he said, and would continue in the future.

“Of course our lawsuit remains active as well,” said Broderick. “We are seeking attorney fees and damages to be determined for depriving students and their families of the constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit asks Maloney to draw the line that separates personal freedom and the government’s right to temporarily eliminate those freedoms during an epidemic with large-scale public health implications. Broderick said the Dec. 8 order — “actually put into practice in November” — “inhibits the faith formation of students and violates their constitutional right to practice religion while leaving open secular businesses where transmission of COVID-19 is more likely to occur …" 

"While faith is integrated into curriculum, physical presence at a faith-based school allows for additional, unique integration beyond classroom instruction," he said. "This includes religious services, participation in the sacraments and the overall Christian community.”

The lawsuit was filed by parents of students at Lansing Catholic High School, Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor and and Everest Collegiate Academy in Clarkston. It’s filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan in Kalamazoo.

The lawsuit stated the religious schools had not had significant coronavirus outbreaks within their institutions.

“For example, the Catholic Diocese of Lansing reports the infection rate is less than 1.6% for all thirty five of its schools across ten counties since August 24, 2020,” according to a press release announcing the Dec. 8 lawsuit. “In the Archdiocese of Detroit, the infection rate among its student population through December 7th is 1.1%.”

Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman with the state department of Health and Human Services, said Monday in-person classes for grades K-12 will be permitted under Whitmer’s new order until Jan. 15.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com

(248) 338-0319