School objects after health dept. closes building due to COVID-19

Ottawa County

BLENDON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — The Ottawa County Department of Public Health says it has issued a final cease-and-desist order to a Hudsonville-area Christian school, arguing it is refusing to require the use of face masks or practice social distancing amid a COVID-19 outbreak at the school.

The Libertas Christian School building has been closed.

The health department would not specify to News 8 Friday exactly how many cases are believed to be associated with the school, saying the information should be available on the state’s coronavirus website Monday, when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services updates data on outbreaks at K-12 schools and universities.

The school claims it doesn’t currently have any coronavirus cases, though its attorney told News 8 that two teachers previously tested positive for the virus. They have since been cleared by doctors to return to work, Libertas’ lead counsel Ian Northon of Rhoades McKee said.

“Both have been isolated and quarantined and none of them have been exposed to any students. There have been zero cases of students” contracting the virus, Northon told News 8.

An empty Libertas Christian School on Oct. 23, 2020.

The attorney says the teachers followed protocols to prevent spread, complied with contact tracing requests and that University of Michigan doctors found they did not have close contact with students.

The Ottawa County Health Department apparently disagrees. It accused the school of “willful failure” to notify those who may have been exposed to coronavirus and not requiring students and staff to follow mandates from MDHHS, including quarantining.

Northon says the school has been cooperating with contact tracing but is under no legal obligation to provide the membership lists of the religious organization. He argued the health department is threatening his clients.
 
“For the first time ever they call this teacher Sunday night and sad, ‘If you don’t give us the names of all of your second-grade students, we’re gonna throw you in jail.’ It’s unbelievable,” Northon said.

The health department says it tried repeatedly to partner with the school to contain the virus, but was forced to take legal action because of the school’s inaction. OCDPH Administrative Health Officer Lisa Stefanovsky said several people who are afraid and concerned about practices at the school have also reached out to the health department.

“We hear those voices and take seriously our duty to protect our community,” Stefanovsky stated in a Friday news release.

The health department has declined to elaborate on the situation “due to pending litigations.”

Libertas on Sunday filed a federal lawsuit against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, MDHHS Director Robert Gordon and OCDPH Deputy Health Administrator Marcia Mansaray over orders regarding how to respond to the pandemic. The school asked the court to prohibit enforcement of the state orders.

The school also alleges the defendants “have violated the constitutional rights of Libertas, its students, their families, and their teachers through a pattern of threats and intimidation.” It said OCDPH dated its first cease-and-desist Oct. 6 but did not deliver it to the school until Oct. 15.

“Defendants have sought to restrict the Constitutional rights of Libertas, and thereby its teachers,
its students, and their families, to associate, to educate its students in the manner chosen by the
students’ families, and to express and practice religious beliefs,” the suit reads in part.

In its suit, the school claims “not one student at Libertas has fallen ill or tested positive for Coronavirus.”

In a Friday statement, the school’s attorney Northon said that the health department shut down the school Thursday “under the cover of darkness … in retaliation of Libertas filing its civil liberties lawsuit.”

An emergency hearing on the matter is filed for Wednesday. Northon said the school had expected the health department not to do anything more until then.

“Instead, the County used the delay to shut down the constitutionally protected free association of parents and their children without any investigation or opportunity to be heard,” his statement read in part. ““The County has shut down the religious activities of more than 250 healthy people without basis in fact or law. The County is not following the CDC or the state’s own guidance in the face of detailed medical records—the very definition of arbitrary and capricious behavior.”

The attorney provided a photo of a quarantine closure sign at the school and a surveillance image of the sign being posted.

“The County needs to follow its own guidelines, review the actual medical data, not rely on anonymous complaints. Instead of singling out Libertas for ‘singing in the chapel without masks’ which is religiously protected activity it should be focused on actual cases of COVID in the community,” Northon added in a later email to News 8.

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