One would think weathering the challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak should bring a nation together. Instead, some politicians, such as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, are taking full advantage of this time to mandate restrictions that openly discriminate against religious Americans.
Through statewide Wuhan virus rules, Brown and the Oregon Department of Education are forcing certain private religious schools to stay closed while giving similarly sized public schools a pass. As a result, religious schools in Oregon might be forced to close altogether, eliminating the option for parents to choose to send their children to schools that reinforce their religious beliefs.
While most schools in Oregon are not being allowed to reopen for in-person instruction, Brown’s latest set of COVID-19 rules allows small public schools of fewer than 75 students to apply to local officials for reopening. This same rule does not extend the same benefit to private religious schools, effectively ensuring that parents who need to send their students to school will be forced to send them to public schools, even if they would prefer a private religious school.
This fact alone should raise alarms. It is unconstitutional to target these religious institutions, but that is exactly what Oregon is doing.
In response, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hermiston Christian School, a small school that has not been permitted to reopen for in-person instruction. Hermiston Christian School, with a student body of 51, is a tight-knit community. All the families sacrifice to send their children there, a choice Brown is now telling them they are not allowed to make.
Private religious schools were told throughout the summer that they would be allowed to reopen in the fall for in-person instruction. Relying on Brown’s words, Hermiston and other Christian schools spent thousands of dollars to meet the state’s health and safety requirements before the governor pulled the rug out from under them. She not only added county-level metrics to the list and gave millions solely to public schools to assist with online instruction, but she also targeted private religious schools.
The state’s guidance originally included an exception that allowed both small public and private religious schools to request permission to reopen for in-person instruction. One week later, however, the state issued a revised version of the guidelines quietly banning private religious schools from even applying.
It gets worse. The state permits private religious schools, such as Hermiston, to serve as emergency day care facilities, meaning children are present at the schools for more than 10 hours per day. Teachers are on site monitoring the children and making sure they are safe, but if they happen to teach these children during that time — the same kids who attend their school — then the school officials face the prospect of 30 days in jail or up to a $1,250 fine. Christian educators can watch one of their students for hours on end, but if they teach a child math during that time, they could be arrested.
Shockingly, that’s not all. One of the public schools that was allowed to reopen is located in the same county as Hermiston, and that school operates in a one-room schoolhouse. Hermiston, on the other hand, has eight rooms and a 10,000-square-foot gym to accommodate the same number of students. This double-standard is not only nonsensical, it’s unconstitutional.
Oregon is arguably worse than its West Coast counterparts. Hermiston is located just 10 minutes from the Washington border, and parents who are committed to placing their children in religious schools have the option of driving a few miles north to exercise that right. This puts Hermiston in a difficult position: plead with the parents of its students to stick with the school during this time or watch as those families, many with full-time working parents, consider withdrawal so their children can learn in an in-person environment.
Fortunately, Alliance Defending Freedom and this small school in rural Oregon are standing up against this discrimination. We are asking that Brown and the state of Oregon respect the rights of religious parents and schools. If small public schools are allowed to apply to reopen, at the very least private religious schools should be afforded the same opportunity.
This intervention comes none too soon. If the state is not held accountable for its double standard, Hermiston Christian School and many other private religious schools in the state might soon cease to exist.