Catholic families, schools file lawsuit challenging Michigan’s extended COVID-19 restrictions

State extends restrictions for 12 days

LANSING, Mich. – Catholic families and schools in the Diocese of Lansing have filed a lawsuit in federal court on Monday challenging the order by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to keep high schools closed for an additional 12 days.

The order -- a “three-week pause” effective beginning Nov. 18 -- was expected to expire on Dec. 8. However, state officials announced on Monday that the order will extend for 12 days -- through Dec. 20.

READ: Michigan extends COVID-19 restrictions for 12 days to gauge Thanksgiving impact

“Today’s order confirms our fear that MDHHS will continue to make decisions about closing schools, and in our specific case Catholic schools, without regard to the obvious and proven efficacy of our local COVID-19 school safety plans nor the uniqueness of our mission-based schools which are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution – therefore we support our families and schools in challenging this decision in court,” said Tom Maloney, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Lansing. “The fact is, our high schools’ COVID-19 safety plans, with their robust health and safety protocols, are working well at protecting both our school communities and the community at large, while also ensuring that our young people can receive the in-person education and formation that is so irreplaceable to their spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and social development.”

READ: Officials want hospitalizations and cases to drop before lifting extended Michigan COVID restrictions

Two high schools within the Diocese of Lansing -- Lansing Catholic High School and Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor -- have joined the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools (MANS) in filing the suit with the Western District of Michigan against MDHHS Director Robert Gordon.

“All the evidence shows that during the three months we had in-person education at Lansing Catholic there were no COVID-19 outbreaks; no spread of COVID-19; and no hospitalizations of students or staff, thus adding no burden to our healthcare system,” said Dominic Iocco, president of Lansing Catholic High School. “Hence, we simply want to continue with our tried and tested COVID-19 safety plan to safely educate and form our students consistent with our constitutional religious liberties.”

According to a press release, the lawsuit “claims that Gordon’s Dec. 7, 2020 order -- an order extending his closure order from last month -- closing religious high schools violates the First Amendment right to practice religion.” The lawsuit also calls for protection for all MANS-member schools to be able to legally reopen. The Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools represents over 400 schools across the state.

READ: Tracking coronavirus cases, outbreaks in Michigan schools

“The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other national experts have indicated over and over that schools are safe places largely because they are closely regulated and supervised environments,” said John DeJak, president of Father Gabriel Richard High School. “The truth is that teachers and parents are becoming increasingly concerned by the damage that is being done to our children’s educational, emotional and mental wellbeing by not being in-person at school. And yet, to date, the state has still not explained why they have closed our high schools while allowing retail, fitness centers, tattoo parlors, hair salons, and other secular businesses to remain open.”

According to the release, Lansing Catholic High School, which has 437 students and 43 faculty members, reported 15 positive COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, Father Gabriel Richard High School, which has 468 students and 47 faculty members, reported 27 cases. The cases are believed to have been contracted off campus.

The following will remain closed, per the state’s epidemic order:

  • High schools (in-person learning)
  • Theaters, movie theaters, stadiums, arenas
  • Colleges and universities (in-person learning)
  • Bowling centers, ice skating rinks, indoor water parks
  • Work, when it can be done from home
  • Bingo halls, casinos, arcades
  • Dine-in restaurants and bars (indoor dining)
  • Group fitness classes
  • Personal services (salon, spa) that involve mask removal*
  • Organized sports, except professional sports and certain NCAA sports (Big Ten football, for example)

Review the full epidemic order that was first issued Nov. 18 right here.

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About the Author:

DeJanay Booth joined WDIV as a web producer in July 2020. She previously worked as a news reporter in New Mexico before moving back to Michigan.