Jeffco public health director spars with Christian school attorneys in court over mask mandate – The Denver Post
Attorneys for three small Christian schools faced off with Jefferson County Public Health’s executive director Monday during a daylong hearing in which the county health department sought to force the schools to follow its COVID-19 mask mandate for students.
The health department sought a judge’s order last week after the agency found that three schools were not properly enforcing mask mandates in their classrooms, according to court filings. The schools objected, saying both that they were following the county’s guidance — which they argued was issued late, lacked legal authority and changed over time — and that the county’s public health order was unconstitutional, among other arguments.
Jefferson County Public Health executive director Dawn Comstock was the only witness to take the stand Tuesday; the hearing did not finish and will continue Wednesday.
Comstock testified extensively about rising rates of COVID-19 infections in the county and particularly among school-aged children, who are not able to be vaccinated if they’re under 12 and have seen significant rates of infection since schools returned this fall.
“For the first time, both the 6 to 11 age group and the 12 to 17 age group have higher incidence rates than adults,” she said. “This is the first time that has been seen in the state of Colorado during the entire pandemic.”
School supporters packed the courtroom Tuesday; some observers in the morning sat shoulder-to-shoulder on the floor and stood in the back of the room. Comstock at one point interrupted her testimony to ask that observers be reminded to wear their masks correctly.
“Your honor, I realize this is irregular but I am concerned we have a very packed courtroom with a number of people not wearing their masks correctly–” she said, before the audience’s derisive laughter drowned her out.
District Court Judge Randall Arp told everyone in the courtroom to wear their masks over their noses and mouths and said those who did not would be removed. Deputies did remove one person from an overflow room who refused to wear a mask.
The school attorneys who cross-examined Comstock on Tuesday focused on arguments the schools had laid out in court filings. Faith Christian Academy argued that it does enforce a mask mandate in its school, but that at the time health inspectors visited there were “some lapses in enforcement as everyone was trying to understand the scope of the public health order while also juggling all of the other responsibilities of starting the school year.”
Beth Eden Baptist School said in a filing that the school had decided last week — hours before the lawsuit was filed — that it would comply with the mandate and allow unimpeded access for inspectors.
“By the time this case was filed, our client was totally in compliance,” attorney Shaun Pearman said about Beth Eden during Tuesday’s hearing. The health department’s attorney, Craig May, disagreed with that characterization.
Augustine Classical Academy also said it was in compliance with the county mask mandate, pointing out that the original mask order was changed in late August and that the school adjusted its initial response after that change.
“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 non-compliant 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,” Justin Riley, interim executive director of Augustine Classical Academy, said in a statement Tuesday.
The schools also raised objections on constitutional grounds, arguing that the mask mandates and the testing requirements for unvaccinated students and staff violate the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, in part because the health department wanted the schools to allow access to health inspectors without prior notice.
“Plaintiff asks this court to give Plaintiff the unprecedented power to conduct generalized and random warrantless searches to enforce a directive for which violations are punishable criminally,” a filing from Augustine Classical Academy reads. “The Fourth Amendment prohibits such expansive power.”
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