Catholic families and schools in the Diocese of Lansing have today filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the order by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) to keep high schools closed for another 12 days without any guaranteed date for re-opening as being scientifically, educationally and constitutionally unjustified.
“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, December 7.
“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.”
Two Catholic high schools within the Diocese of Lansing have now joined the Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools (MANS) in filing suit in federal court in the Western District of Michigan against MDHHS Director Robert Gordon. They are Lansing Catholic High School and Father Gabriel Richard High School in Ann Arbor. The suit claims that Gordon's December 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 seeks protection for all MANS-member schools to reopen legally.
“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 which is backing the MANS legal suit.
“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.”
Also party to the MANS legal action against the MDHHS are numerous Catholic families and parents including Dr. Christopher J. Abood M.D., who has a son at Lansing Catholic High School.
“As a Catholic family, we choose to send our son to a Catholic school because we firmly believe that the human person is both soul and body and that the practice of our faith demands certain physical elements, such as the reception of the Holy Eucharist and Sacrament of Reconciliation, that cannot be accomplished through video chats and other technological means,” said Dr. Abood.
“Like any parents, we obviously want our children educated in the safest of environments and, so, we were very impressed and reassured by the COVID-19 measures put in place by Lansing Catholic, measures that allow our children to flourish in a Catholic environment and that keep both them and our community safe – that’s why our kids need their high school to be open.”
According to the data cited in the MANS legal suit, during three-months of in-person learning this Fall there were only 15 positive COVID cases at Lansing Catholic. All were believed to have been contracted off campus; and the school is unaware of any spread of these cases within the school, likely due to the school's robust COVID safety plan. The school has 437 students and 43 members of faculty. Meanwhile at Father Gabriel Richard High School, which has 468 students and 47 faculty, there were only 27 such cases. Likewise, these cases are believed to have been contracted off campus and not spread within the school.
“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.”
The Michigan Association of Nonpublic Schools represents over 400 schools across the state. Its membership is ecumenical and includes all seven Catholic dioceses in Michigan. The MANS legal papers also reveal that Father Gabriel Richard High School has incurred more than $59,000 in expenses to implement COVID-19 safety precautions while the figure for Lansing Catholic is $102,000.
“As a physician, I have taken care of many patients with COVID and I have great respect for the significance of this pandemic. However, closing schools is aimed narrowly only at physical health,” said Dr. William Chavey, a parent at Father Gabriel Richard High School.
“Flourishing is a state at which all aspects of a person’s life are good. Adolescents cannot flourish – physically, emotionally, academically, or spiritually – when isolated and relegated to online learning. Further, those who have chosen religious schools have done so in an effort to develop their spirituality and that cannot be done in isolation. Blunting development in these formative years may be irreversible.”
Statistical Note: The Diocese of Lansing statistics for the duration of in-person education from August 24 to December 4 across 35 Schools in 10 counties; 99 students confirmed positive and 35 faculty, staff and coaches confirmed positive. Less than 5 of those cases are thought have been contracted on campus and none of those cases were at high schools.