Laguna Madre Christian Academy, a private Christian school in Port Isabel, aims to bring its students back August 31 for in-person classes in defiance of a joint order issued by Cameron County Health Authority and Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño.
The school and its legal counsel, First Liberty Institute, maintain that opening classes to the body of 20 students and five teachers is legal under state law, including Greg Abbott’s recent Executive Order GA-28 and a letter of guidance from Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Soon after Cameron County issued the joint order on August 10, school director Susie Houston emailed the Cameron County Courthouse to notify them of their plans to move forward with in-school instruction, citing Paxton’s letter.
“We are a private Christian school and are unable to receive state funds,” Houston wrote. “All of our income comes primarily through tuition fees and our major fundraiser. LMCA will begin in-school instruction on Monday, August 31 with an enrollment of approximately twenty students and five staff.”
Cameron County Courthouse Chief Legal Counsel Juan Gonzalez responded on Treviño’s behalf, saying that Paxton’s guidance wields no legal power and citing a number of Supreme Court decisions such as Jacobson v. Massachusetts and South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Gavin in support.
“Cameron County is of the opinion that Paxton’s guidance is not grounded in legitimate or correct legal analysis,” Gonzalez wrote. “Further, it is nothing more than an opinion and does not have controlling legal authority over the situation.”
First Liberty Institute maintains that Treviño lost the power to close down the Christian school when Abbott issued Executive Order GA-28, which states that it “shall supersede any conflicting order issued by local officials in response to the COVID-19 disaster.”
They also rely heavily on Paxton’s letter, which refers to the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act among other cases decided in the Supreme Court and the Texas Supreme Court.
“The Governor of Texas rightfully identified access to ‘religious services as essential services,” the letter reads. “Texas RFRA prohibits the government from ‘substantially burdening’ the free exercise of religion, which includes the ability of faith communities to educate their youth, unless it can demonstrate a compelling interest for the restriction and prove it applies in the least restrictive way.”
Jeremy Dys, Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications at First Liberty, argued that Paxton’s letter interprets the law properly and urged Cameron County authorities to take up their fight with Paxton instead of the school.
“The attorney general’s opinion goes into numerous citations as recently as June that indicate that there is a level of autonomy which religious institutions are deserving of, even in the midst of a pandemic,” Dys said. “It’s the opinion of the chief legal officer of the state of Texas, so if Cameron County has a problem with that opinion, I suggest they take it up with the Attorney General and stop singling out religious institutions for their actions.”
“My hope is that Cameron County will just simply respect the autonomy of this school,” Dys said. “We’re talking 4,500 square feet, 20 students, and five staff members. That many people will gather every day inside of a Walmart, and at laundromats, and daycare centers, even in Cameron County, which have not shut down. Why the Cameron County leadership decides to single out religious institutions I don’t quite understand.”
The director of the school declined to comment.
Update: As of August 21, the county has allowed the school to reopen for in-person instruction.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.