Whether and when students can return to in-person instruction have been constantly posed questions as the usual school year approaches. The City of Austin’s interim health authority’s latest order required all schools to be closed to in-person instruction until September 8.
Dallas issued a similar order on Thursday.
But a new opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton ruled that religious schools, along with religious institutions such as churches, are exempt from this restriction on First Amendment grounds.
Stating that Governor Abbott’s orders classify religious activities as “essential services,” the opinion further adds, “[L]ocal governments are prohibited from closing religious institutions or dictating mitigation strategies to those institutions…[and] are similarly prohibited from issuing blanket orders closing religious private schools.”
In other words, local governments are prohibited from closing religious schools, saying such restrictions violate both the U.S. and Texas constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The Texas Supreme Court has also established that “the government cannot set standards for religious education or training.”
This decision comes as the Texas Education Agency is scrambling to implement remote learning protocols and deadlines and eventual in-person procedures.
Paxton concluded, “as protected by the First Amendment and Texas law, religious private schools may continue to determine when it is safe for their communities to resume in-person instruction free from any government mandate or interference. Religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders to the contrary.”
Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz celebrated the opinion, stating, “This legal statement makes it clear, Texas religious and private schools do not have to follow local government orders that have banned these schools from opening and having in-person instruction and extracurricular activities.
“I could not agree more with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is the top law enforcement officer in our state. We are prepared to defend these freedoms in Texas wherever and whenever necessary. Let freedom ring and let the school bell ring,” he concluded.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins justified the postponement, citing increasing coronavirus case numbers, stating, “Your child’s safety AND education is a top priority. [Dallas County Health and Human Services] is working night and day with superintendents, educators and health experts to protect students physical, mental and emotional well being. In [Dallas County], we follow the science.”
Irrespective of their wishes, local officials will now have to adjust their orders or face legal repercussions.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.