Cameron County threatened with suit over school emergency order

BROWNSVILLE — Plano-based First Liberty Institute, which bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit law firm dedicated to protecting religious rights, is threatening to sue Cameron County over its Aug. 10 order delaying face-to-face classes at public and private K-12 schools until after Sept. 28.

In letters to the county from First Liberty dated Aug. 18 and Aug. 20, special counsel Jeremy Dys states that the Joint Cameron County Health Authority and Cameron County Judge Emergency Health Control Order delaying in-person instruction is unlawful according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 26 executive order superseding the authority of local governments to issue orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 if they conflict with the governor’s own orders.

Dys also cited Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s July 17 nonbinding guidance that “local governments are … prohibited from issuing blanket orders closing religious private schools.”

First Liberty is representing Laguna Madre Christian Academy in Laguna Vista and Calvary Christian School of Excellence in Harlingen. LMCA and CCSE plan to reopen for face-to-face classes on Aug. 31 and Sept. 8, respectively, according to the letters from Dys, who wrote that the county has authority over public schools but not private schools.

Citing Paxton again, Dys wrote that “religious private schools therefore need not comply with local public health orders” under the First Amendment and Texas law. Dys concluded by writing that “any effort by Cameron County to enforce its unlawful order … will be viewed as an affront to the religious liberty of (LMCA and CCSE) and met with the strictest legal defense.”

In an Aug. 20 response to the first letter from Dys, county litigation counsel Daniel N. Lopez reiterated that the county’s order applies to non-secular as well as secular K-12 schools, but said LMCA presents a “unique situation” because of its size — five teachers and 20 students. Lopez wrote that county Health Authority Dr. James Castillo had reviewed the school’s COVID-19 protocols and determined that they meet the Texas Medical Association’s latest recommendations for school re-opening.

Lopez wrote that, under those circumstances, Castillo and county Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. were not opposed to granting an exemption to LMCA.

“They came up with a plan that meets the guidelines, so we’re OK,” he said.

Dys wrote that CCSE also has developed “protocols, processes, and procedures” for resuming face-to-face classes safely, though the school is larger with 12 teachers and 139 students, plus 40 children cared for in the school’s Early Childhood Center.

“That one may be a little more problematic,” Trevino said, adding that Castillo is reviewing CCSE’s reopening plan.

“Once he’s reviewed it we’ll discuss any concerns that he’s got, and then we’ll communicate that with the school and see whether or not there will be an exception made,” Trevino said.

He said First Liberty is misconstruing the county’s order regarding schools as an attack on religious freedom.

“We want to be clear about that,” Trevino said. “We’ve spoken to the health professions. We’ve spoken to a great majority of the administrators, educators and superintendents, and other than these two particular schools I’m not aware of anybody else who’s trying to insist on having face-to-face teaching at the moment. … This is not a political or religious issue. This is health and safety and protection of our children issue. I don’t understand their rationale in wanting to put their children and teachers at risk, but I guess that’s their decision to make — not one I would make.”