Texas county threatened with lawsuit over COVID-19 order

Healthcare professional Kenzie Anderson grabs a test tube for a sample at United Memorial Medical Center COVID-19 testing site Friday, June 26, 2020, in Houston. The number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the state. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said that the state is facing a "massive outbreak" in the coronavirus pandemic and that some new local restrictions may be needed to protect hospital space for new patients. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Efforts by officials in one South Texas county to delay the start of face-to-face classes due to the coronavirus pandemic could face a legal challenge on claims of religious freedom.

Cameron County, which has been one of the many COVID-19 hot spots in South Texas in recent months, has delayed in-person classes at public and private K-12 schools until after Sept. 28.

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But attorneys for two private religious schools have told the county that the order is unlawful and goes against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s June 26 executive order superseding the authority of local governments to issue orders aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus if they conflict with the governor’s own orders, the Brownsville Herald reported.

Laguna Madre Christian Academy in Laguna Vista and Calvary Christian School of Excellence in Harlingen plan to open for face-to-face classes on Aug. 31 and Sept. 8, respectively.

Last month, Abbott said Texas counties don’t have the power to preemptively shut down campuses to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Abbott said that power rests with local school boards and state education officials.

Jeremy Dys, an attorney with Plano-based First Liberty, which represents the two schools, told officials in a letter that “any effort by Cameron County to enforce its unlawful order … will be viewed as an affront to the religious liberty of (the two schools) and met with the strictest legal defense.”

Daniel N. Lopez, an attorney for Cameron County, said in an Aug. 20 letter that officials were not opposed to granting Laguna Madre Christian Academy an exemption because the school is small and it came up with a plan that meets state guidelines for reopening.

But Calvary Christian School is bigger and its reopening plan was still being reviewed, officials said.

Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. said First Liberty is misconstruing the county’s order regarding schools as an attack on religious freedom.

“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,” said Treviño, the county’s top elected official.

The number of reported coronavirus cases in Texas increased by 3,493 and there were 104 more deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, Texas health officials reported Sunday. Officials reported 5,186 people were hospitalized due to the virus.

There are a reported total of 577,537 virus cases and 11,370 deaths, although the true number of cases in Texas is likely higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.

State health officials reported 114,391 active cases of the virus and that 451,776 people have recovered.

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