Hermiston Christian School sues Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, other officials for religious discrimination

By Meerah Powell (OPB)
Oct. 22, 2020 6:04 p.m.

A private Christian school in Eastern Oregon is suing Gov. Kate Brown, as well as other state and local officials, stating some coronavirus-related restrictions are a form of religious discrimination.

Hermiston Christian School’s civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal court in Pendleton late last week by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal organization based in Arizona.

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“After 41 years of faithful service, Hermiston Christian School … could be forced to shut its doors for good unless the Court stops an obvious case of discrimination,” attorneys wrote.

Attorneys representing the school argue that, while certain exceptions for operating schools in-person are available for public schools, those exceptions are not available for private schools – which religious schools are.

In Umatilla County, religious schools make up 100% of private schools, the lawsuit states.

“Defendants' COVID-19 orders and guidance generally prohibit in-person instruction but grant a ‘small school’ exception to public schools while denying the same exception to private religious schools,” the lawsuit reads.

Attorneys for Hermiston Christian School are specifically pointing to an exception in the joint guidance issued by the Oregon Department of Education and Oregon Health Authority, which allows public school districts with 75 or fewer students to provide in-person learning, in consultation with their local public health agency, even if their county does not meet health metrics.

Along with the governor, Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, and Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, are also listed as defendants on the lawsuit. Other defendants include the director of the Umatilla County Public Health Department, superintendent of the Oregon State Police and the Umatilla County sheriff.

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The lawsuit points to Ukiah School District — also in Umatilla County, but located about 80 miles southeast of Hermiston Christian School — as one of the districts included in that “small school” exception list that has been able to reopen for in-person education.

Hermiston Christian School currently has 51 students enrolled in its K-12 program, according to court documents.

Attorneys for Hermiston Christian School also say that state orders and guidance have provided more favorable treatment to non-religious public schools, especially in terms of funding.

“Defendants provide secure funding and assistance to ensure that public schools can survive and comply with Defendants' ever-changing demands,” the lawsuit states. “In addition to regular funding for public schools, Governor Brown has authorized $28 million in additional funding to help public schools carry the burdens associated with Defendants' restrictions.”

The attorneys claim Brown and other officials have violated the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Attorneys for Hermiston Christian School are urging the court to prohibit Brown and other state and local officials from enforcing the orders that don’t allow private religious schools to operate in-person.

There are no court hearings currently scheduled for the lawsuit.

Earlier this week, attorneys representing Brown, Gill, Allen and other defendants filed a notice stating that a similar lawsuit had already been filed in August in federal court in Portland. That lawsuit was on behalf of three Christian schools suing Brown, also over coronavirus restrictions.

Attorneys for the state say such similar lawsuits should at least initially be assigned to the same judge.

That case is still pending in federal court, though a motion for a temporary restraining order was denied. A motion for a preliminary injunction will be heard next month.

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