Hermiston Christian School (HCS) is a small, Christian educational institution located in Umatilla County, Oregon. It was all set to open this Fall for in-person instruction for its 51 students when, on July 29, Governor Katherine Brown changed everything by issuing a COVID-19 rule prohibiting schools from opening. Failure to comply could result in a 30-day jail sentence and a $1250 fine.
There was just one problem, constitutionally speaking. The governor then exempted small, public schools of 75 students or less from her order, allowing them to begin in-person instruction, while denying the same exemption to private schools. According to the governor’s spokesperson, she was concerned about parents of public school students disenrolling their children and the resulting loss of state funding for those schools.
In Umatilla County, every private school is a religious one. Across the state, the vast majority of private schools are religious.
HCS, with the help of attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, have filed a federal lawsuit against the governor and other Oregon officials for religious discrimination.
“While responding to crises can be difficult, this case is not. 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,” ADF Senior Counsel Ryan Tucker said in a press release on ADF’s website.
“Hermiston Christian School operates in the same county as a public school that is open, and it operates with the same number of students, who are performing the same type of activity, working in an even larger physical environment, and complying with the same health and safety protocols. 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,” Tucker said.
Besides the obvious discrimination against private, religious schools, the governor’s directive on July 29 put HCS in a precarious financial position that threatens its existence. According to HCS’s complaint filed in federal district court, single parents and low-income families with two working parents who rely on sending their children to school may leave HCS.
“Indeed, some HCS families have already completed paperwork necessary to move their children to a Washington school if HCS cannot reopen soon,” the school’s court filing asserts. HCS is located near the Oregon-Washington border.
Besides implicating the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion, the school alleges the governor’s actions also create an equal protection violation under the 14th Amendment because she is treating two types of small schools in the state differently, granting exemptions to one and denying them to another.
The lawsuit is titled Hermiston Christian Center v. Brown.
Photo from Hermiston Christian School
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