Coronavirus

Inside Jefferson County's Mask Fight With Three Christian Schools

Protesters outside the Jefferson County Courthouse on September 21.
Protesters outside the Jefferson County Courthouse on September 21. CBS4 Denver via YouTube
This morning, September 22, a hearing is scheduled to resume at the Jefferson County Courthouse regarding a lawsuit filed by Jefferson County Public Health against three Christian schools that have reportedly defied orders related to indoor mask use to fight the spread of COVID-19, much to the delight of demonstrators who gathered outside the courthouse to show their support of the schools.

The conflict turns on matters of church and state, with JCPH contending that its duty to protect the health of children (and adults) supersedes issues of faith and the schools arguing that parents should be able to decide whether to mask their kids or rely on the protections afforded by God.

The argument isn't just taking place here. The Jeffco complaint mirrors cases across the country, as witnessed by reports out of Michigan, New York and Illinois. That suggests the controversy over mask mandates will continue to rage no matter who comes out on top of this particular scuffle.

Religious-oriented debates over medical treatment are nothing new, as evidenced by this 2007 NPR report about a fourteen-year-old Jehovah's Witness follower who lost his life after refusing blood transfusions that would have saved him because they violated his beliefs. And although masking concerns amid the pandemic have put a new spin on such disputes, they can still have lethal consequences. Longtime Denver media figure Bob Enyart, a pastor and podcaster who was granted a temporary restraining order in October 2020 against the Colorado public-health order regarding mask use at religious services as well as rules limiting gatherings to 175 people, died earlier this month after contracting COVID-19.

The defendants in JCPH's verified complaint for injunctive relief, filed on September 15, are Beth Eden Baptist School, Augustine Classical Academy and Faith Christian Academy, and in that document, the agency stresses that "the county attorney for Jefferson County is authorized to bring any civil action requested by a county public health director 'to abate a condition that exists in violation of, or to restrain or enjoin any action that is in violation of, or to prosecute for the violation of or the enforcement of, the public health laws and the standards, orders and rules of the state board or a county or district board of public health.'"

The complaint subsequently underscores the scope of the risk, stating that "between March 12, 2020, and September 12, 2021, there have been 55,639 known cases of COVID-19 in Jefferson County, Colorado. During that time, 3,117 people have been hospitalized and 902 have died. In 2020, COVID-19 was the third leading primary cause of death in Jefferson County."

The situation in Jefferson County has been exacerbated recently by the rise of COVID-19's Delta variant, which constituted 99 percent of all disease tests sampled during the week ending July 25. "As observed with higher rates of transmission," the document contends, "the Delta variant appears to have a greater impact on children ages nineteen and under as compared to past strains of the virus.... The COVID-19 case counts among residents of Jefferson County 0-19 years between August 18, 2020 and September 12, 2020, was 112, while the case count for the same demographic from August 17, 2021 to September 12, 2021, was 734."

The complaint goes on to outline how the county learned that mask orders were not being followed. JCPH is said to have "received a complaint from a Beth Eden parent of the school's noncompliance." Shortly thereafter, an agency rep contacted principal Colin Landy on August 24 "to educate the school" about masking requirements "and to seek voluntary compliance." In response, it states, Landry indicated that "the school is allowing parents to seek an exemption to mask-wearing without providing a basis for one and that some parents had opted for such exemptions." Two days later, Landry sent parents a letter "informing them that the school is 'out of step with the government mandate.'"

JCPH also received calls from parents about non-compliance at Augustine Classical Academy. The court document quotes an August 31 email asserting that "only parents, on behalf of a child, can decide whether an exception or testing requirement applies to a child. Similarly, only [Augustine] employees and volunteers can decide for themselves whether an exemption or testing requirement applies to them."

For its part, Augustine Classical Academy contends in a statement that inspectors found the school to be "in compliance with the public health order" and suggests that it was singled out for punishment because of its Christian focus. An excerpt states: "We are curious about why JCPH targeted small religious schools in what appears to be an effort to intimidate, if not harass, our schools for being noncompliant with the public health order when all three schools have either clearly indicated their voluntary compliance and/or been investigated and found to be in compliance by JCPH inspectors."

Jefferson County court should have something to say about that soon. Click to read Jefferson County Public Health v. Beth Eden Baptist School, et al.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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