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Parochial schools challenge MDHHS COVID order

Steve Ioya / Flickr

A group of Christian high schools claims Michigan’s COVID-19 restrictions violate religious freedom rights. The schools have filed a federal lawsuit in west Michigan to block the continuation of the restrictions.That’s after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) extended its COVID restrictions through December 20th. They include requiring high school classes to stick to remote, on-line instruction.

Brian Broderick is with The Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools. It represents 400 religious schools attended by roughly 90 thousand students. He says being at school is an essential part of faith-based learning, including the sacraments of communion and confession, and daily religious services.

“You can incorporate some aspects of religious training in an online format, in a remote format, but you don’t get the full impact of religious training, of faith formation, when you’re doing it over a computer,” he said.

Broderick says the restrictions are too much as the state is allowing many personal services and school and professional sports events to go ahead.

From the complaint:

“Simply put, if masks and other precautionary measures are sufficient protection to allow individuals to exercise the yet-to-be-announced constitutional rights to get a tattoo, go to the gym, or attend cosmetology school, so too are they sufficient protection for religious schools to exercise their constitutional right to the free exercise of religion.”

“…education is not merely oral transmission of facts and figures.  It involves making visits to the chapel or spending a few impromptu moments speaking with a priest or consecrated woman about a thought or a situation that they just experienced. None of this can be adequately substituted with computer screens.

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that restoring in-person learning is a high priority once the spread of COVID-19 is under control:

“The goal of the order is to reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly as it relates to indoor gatherings, which will in turn reduce the strain on our healthcare system and save lives. We will be monitoring three data points very carefully over the next 12 days with the goal of slowly reopening schools, businesses and other activities as we see significant progress in these measures. In-person learning at high schools is one of the first priorities because of their unique value for kids, families and our future. The order rests firmly on epidemic powers given to the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services after the Spanish Flu a century ago. The sooner Michiganders put a pause on indoor social gatherings, the more lives we will save, and the sooner we will be able to resume our normal lives.”

A hearing on the case is scheduled for December 14th before U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.