AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told religious private schools Friday they are exempt from local reopening restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic due to their free speech rights.
Paxton said in an open letter that city and county authorities that issue “blanket orders closing religious private schools” are violating the U.S. and Texas constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
“As the Supreme Court reaffirmed last week, ‘[t]he First Amendment protects the right of the religious institutions ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’’” Paxton’s 4-page letter states. “Likewise, the Texas Supreme Court acknowledges that ‘the government cannot set standards for religious education or training.’”
Paxton’s guidance comes three days after city of Austin and Travis County officials banned public and private schools from holding in-person classes before Sept. 8. The order bans extracurricular activities until a school’s in-person instruction resumes. The ban came after Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott told county commissioners that students between 10 and 19 years of age are particularly vulnerable.
“Somewhere around seventy percent of students could become infected,” he said. “In that 0.03 percent to 1.02 percent for Travis County, [it] would equate to between 40 and 1,370 deaths in that age group.”
Escott said the risk to teachers and staff is “much higher,” that a rate of death for the adults would be as much as 10 times higher. He urged schools to prepare for online-only instruction as the “default position” for the entire fall semester.
Paxton said the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act deems such closure orders as “not the least restrictive means of achieving” a compelling interest to close parts of society to contain the spread of the virus. He also said the local orders contradict executive orders by Republican Governor Greg Abbott for public schools, stating he “expressly acknowledged” that private schools can make their own decisions on the matter.
“Under the governor’s orders, local governments are prohibited from closing religious institutions or dictating mitigation strategies to those institutions,” the letter states.
Within hours of Dr. Escott’s recommendations, Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz announced the first day of class will be delayed three weeks from Aug. 18 to Sept. 8. On Friday, the Texas Education Agency announced that public schools in the state will be allowed to temporarily limit in-person instruction for the first four weeks of school into September and could apply for a waiver if they wish to continue online instruction.
Austin officials acknowledged Paxton’s guidance Friday, saying the health of Texas school children “is paramount” for everyone.
“The city encourages all schools to monitor our local COVID-19 situation and to respond in a manner that offers the greatest safety for our school children and their families, as well as for the teachers and staff of the schools,” the city said in a statement.
Texas reported 10,158 new confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 130 deaths on Saturday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.