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January 2021

Michigan Private Schools’ Motion to Enjoin COVID Regs Denied as Moot; School Seeking to Join Lawsuit as Plaintiff as Case Proceeds

A Michigan federal court judge denied a group of parents and nonpublic schools’ request for a preliminary injunction that sought to enjoin COVID-19 restrictions the state implemented in November that precluded the school from hosting in-person classes. The one-page opinion from Judge Paul Maloney said the motion was rendered moot by the fact that the restrictions complained of expired on December 20.

As we noted last month, there was a likelihood that the court would reach the conclusion that the relief sought would become moot once the restrictions expired. However, the ruling from Judge Maloney on December 21 does not end the lawsuit. In fact, Zion Christian School is seeking to join the lawsuit as a plaintiff. Additionally, the plaintiffs can still seek to prove a First Amendment violation, and resulting damages, during the time period when the restrictions were in place.

The suit claims that the state regulations, as put forward by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), deprives students of “the religious formation and community that is at the core of their faith and the very reason for their enrollment. Forbidding students from attending religious schools that have protective measures in place, and while permitting countless other gatherings that pose equal or higher risks, is irrational and arbitrary.”

There are similar lawsuits against DHHS and Robert Gordon, its director, that continue to proceed. One was filed by St. Michael Academy last month. To the extent that the lawsuit is based on the restrictions that ended on December 20, the claims might also face a mootness challenge now that those restrictions have expired. However, plaintiffs may seek damages with regard to when the restrictions were still in place and they were not allowed to host in-person instruction. These suits will likely continue for the next several months while renewed or additional restrictions from DHHS might be reinstituted to combat COVID-19.

These are two examples of a continuing trend of lawsuits against state governments that allege COVID-19 restrictions on religious gatherings at houses of worship and religious schools have gone too far and violate First Amendment protections. These questions have reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which in November invalidated COVID-19 restrictions in New York on First Amendment grounds. However, over the summer, the Supreme Court let some California restrictions remain in place and deferred to local health officials. In other words, these are fact-intensive cases that do not always result in the same outcome.

For more information on RLUIPA and similar land use, First Amendment and constitutional matters, please contact Joseph McGill at 734-742-1800. Additionally, please see our RLUIPA primer that provides additional information about RLUIPA, as well as our RLUIPA Resources Page that tracks RLUIPA and similar First Amendment cases throughout the United States.