A small private Christian school in Port Isabel is ready to take Cameron County to court over a restrictive policy that forbids them from beginning in-person instruction, setting up a potential standoff over religious liberty.

Laguna Madre Christian Academy is a small private school consisting of only 20 students and five teachers. To keep students and teachers safe, the school is planning to follow multiple health and safety guidelines. These include masks, temperature checks, screenings prior to entry, and socially distanced classrooms. Yet the school finds itself under the ire of Cameron County. 

Democrat County Judge Eddie Treviño issued an order on August 10 banning all schools, public and private, from beginning in-person instruction until September 28. 

The school, citing state law and guidance, will reopen to their 20 students on August 31.

Representing the school is First Liberty Institute, which describes itself as the “largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans.” Attorney Jeremy Dys, special counsel for First Liberty, sent a letter to Cameron County stating that the school will proceed with in-person instruction on August 31 and that any attempt to enforce its order would be met with legal action:

“Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been unequivocal: local governments have no authority under Texas law to shut down or delay private religious schools from reopening. Cameron County officials, refusing to respect the religious liberty and the autonomy of religious institutions, dismiss the Attorney General’s opinion as illegitimate at their own peril.”

Laguna Madre cites Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-28, as well as Paxton’s July 17 guidance issued to private and religious schools:

“Under the Governor’s orders, local governments are prohibited from closing religious institutions or dictating mitigation strategies to those institutions. Local governments are similarly prohibited from issuing blanket orders closing religious private schools.

 

“Moreover, local public health orders attempting to restrict the provision of religious instruction through religious private schools violate the United States and Texas Constitutions and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

The Christian academy says the county attorney’s office sent them a letter on August 13 that describes Paxton’s guidance as “not grounded in legitimate or correct legal analysis.” County Attorney Juan Gonzalez also contended that the attorney general’s guidance has no controlling legal authority.

“To suggest that 20 people can gather in Wal-Mart all day long, but 20 students can’t go to school again, separated by socially distancing and masks, is just something very hard to swallow,” explained Dys to CBS 4 News.

The letter also details the extensive health and safety protocols adopted by Laguna Madre Christian Academy for the upcoming school year. Texas Scorecard previously reported on Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño’s efforts to ban churches from holding in-person and drive-in services.

“Any effort by Cameron County to enforce its unlawful order of August 10, 2020, will be viewed as an affront to the religious liberty of LMCA and met with the strictest legal defense,” added First Liberty. The letter sent to Cameron County can be viewed here.