Shutting down more than school
California parents fight for in-person religious education
For California residents Chris and Michelle Ambuul, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s directive shuttering most private and public schools in the state because of the coronavirus pandemic has serious consequences. None of their six children can attend St. Joseph Academy in San Marcos to receive an education rooted in their Catholic faith.
On Monday, the Ambuuls joined other religious parents, teachers, and schools in a federal lawsuit against the Democratic governor in a bid to allow private, religious schools to offer in-person instruction. The plaintiffs—who are Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant—claim their religions necessitate face-to-face teaching and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects their right to provide it. They note the state closed their schools while allowing camps and day care facilities to stay open, a distinction for which the state, as yet, offered no rationale.
In his “framework for reopening” order on July 17, Newsom barred in-person learning in areas on a “county monitoring list” within the previous 14 days. According to the complaint, the list affects 465,000 of the 470,000 private school students in California, approximately 72 percent of which attend religious schools. For them, distance learning is the only option.
For the Ambuuls, that just doesn’t work. Along with other Catholic parents, they believe receiving the Eucharist—a sacrament that, along with confession, can only be administered by a priest or Eucharistic minister—is the holiest thing a Catholic can do.
And like Protestant and Jewish parents, the Ambuuls point to the communal nature of their faith—the importance of their children receiving spiritual instruction and worshipping alongside others. For them, distance learning is not just inconvenient and challenging but prevents them from practicing their religion, a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.
As some counties and states order all schools to remain closed to in-person instruction, a drop-off in enrollment means affected private schools face permanent closure.
Becket attorney Eric Rassbach, who successfully represented two California Catholic schools before the Supreme Court this year, pointed to the justices’ recognition that religious education is “vital” to many faiths.
“Religious schools are a crucial lifeline for many disabled kids, economically disadvantaged kids, and minority kids who will have nowhere else to go if these schools cannot reopen,” he said, noting that closing public schools does not pose the same threat to the free exercise of religion as closing private ones.
Not all states have taken such an aggressive approach. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, issued an emergency order exempting private schools from shutdown orders for public schools. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, also a Republican, in July sent an official letter to religious private schools clarifying local closure orders did not apply to them, though at least one county is bucking that directive.
Sebastian Petz, the superintendent of Montebello Christian School in Montebello, Calif., pointed out that the chilling effect on religious schools could become permanent.
“Public schools will always be around,” he said. “They have state funding. We do not, so if we don’t open our doors, there’s a good chance that we may never be able to serve our low-income, poor, minority families going forward for the rest of our existence.”
Vickie Trejo, a working single mom whose 12-year-old son attends Montebello, worries about her son’s emotional, psychological, and spiritual health.
“Beyond the trauma of the pandemic, it would be heartbreaking to have Montebello close its doors,” she said. “I’ve made sacrifices to send my son to a school that would also address his spiritual needs and growth, and there’s not another place for that to happen.”
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